Another chance for U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea amid Arctic changes

Puget Sound Business Journal - Steve Wilhelm

Maybe the U.S. won’t have just one heavy icebreaker — compared to Russia’s six — after all. And that's important at a time when melting ice is opening new areas of the Arctic to commerce.

The Polar Sea, one of the United States' two heavy icebreakers, is to be given another reprieve from being scrapped, under legislation passed by the U.S. Senate Dec. 12.

The Coast Guard Authorization Bill, expected to be signed by President Barack Obama, includes an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that prohibits the U.S. Coast Guard from scrapping the 399-foot ship until the agency proves this is the most cost-effective option.

The ship already had a temporary reprieve under earlier legislation introduced by Cantwell and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) in 2011. The Polar Sea originally was to have been dismantled this year.

You can see the red-and-white Polar Sea tied up at Seattle’s East Waterway, not far from Vigor Shipyards, where its sister ship Polar Star is in the final stages of a $56 million overhaul.

Keeping the Polar Sea, or finding a comparable replacement, is considered crucial to maintaining access to melting Arctic ice fields, as larger areas of the Arctic open up for exploration and development. While climate change is causing great damage to wildlife in the region, it is also opening up access to potential mining and oil development areas, as well as new maritime transportation routes. On those routes, ships and people will need assistance at times from icebreakers.

The polar ice cap receded to its smallest size in recorded history this summer. Maritime companies are responding by investing in equipment they’ll need to get access. Seattle-based Foss Maritime, for instance, is building three ice-hardy oceangoing tugs.

Refurbishing the Polar Sea would cost about $400 million, according to a joint estimate from Cantwell’s office and the Coast Guard. Cantwell's office estimated that overhauling the Polar Sea would take about three years and employ 300 workers, while a comparable new vessel would take eight to 10 years to build, and employ 1,000.

“Icebreakers are critical to our national security and America’s interests in the Arctic,” said Cantwell in a statement. “As commerce in the Arctic continues to increase, our nation’s need for icebreakers will continue to grow. This bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea, and supports shipbuilding jobs in the Puget Sound, as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers.”

Sister ship Polar Sea is driven by a 18,000 horsepower diesel-electric system, supported by a gas turbine that generates 75,000 horsepower when needed for ice breaking.