In addition to myriad other “brown water” missions the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for all icebreaking operations done by the U.S. government. Coast Guard assets include two arctic icebreakers, a Great Lakes-based icebreaker, and a fleet of smaller cutters to clear bays, rivers, and other waterways.
The first icebreaker in the Coast Guard was not a true icebreaker, but the Revenue Cutter Bear, which featured a reinforced hull and spent its career with the Coast Guard’s predecessor, the Revenue Cutter Service, serving from Seattle to present day Dutch Harbor.
The Great Lakes and areas like the Hudson Bay are also serviced by 140-foot icebreaking tugs, such as the Biscayne Bay and Sturgeon Bay. In addition to icebreaking, these cutters also conduct search and rescue, law enforcement, and aids-to-navigation.
Today, ocean-going icebreakers serve several purposes. In addition to opening up shipping channels, they conduct scientific experiments, escort ships, conduct law enforcement and search and rescue, as well as enforce treaties and environmental protections. The Healy also boasts more than 4,000 square feet of laboratory space for civilian, military, and NOAA scientists to collect data and conduct experiments while the cutter is underway. The crews help facilitate environmental protections, such as cleaning up oil spills or other issues, as well as rescue operations and law enforcement as needed.
Life on an icebreaker is hardly easy. The crew may be out of home port for more than eight months a year. Every person aboard must be accounted for twice a day. The job is hazardous, with deaths of crew members being documented due to accidents on both ocean-going icebreakers. Temperatures in the Arctic Circle can get lower than 35 to 50 degrees below zero.Backing Ramming from Ben Harden on Vimeo.
A variety of cutters were used for icebreaking in the north Pacific, but the first true icebreaker was built for the Coast Guard in 1942. The Staten Island was the first of seven Wind-Class cutters built for the Coast Guard. At 269 feet in length, the cutters had the ability to list, or tilt, side to side to break free from ice.
The two iterations of the Mackinaw were both created to serve upon the five great lakes. The main reason for the icebreaking mission on the Great Lakes is to keep commercial vessels moving throughout the winter. The first cutter was built in 1944 and served for 62 years before being decommissioned and turned into a floating museum.
Today, the Polar Star and the Healy make icebreaking voyages. The Healy and Polar Star have participated in voyages to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to help resupply the missions there. In 2015, the Healy became the first U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole unaccompanied. While the Healy has made voyages south, she generally is the Arctic icebreaker due to her lighter weight. The heavier Polar Star is an Antarctic icebreaker.
While it may seem that two icebreakers is enough for America’s needs, it hardly compares to other Arctic nations. Russia boasts twenty-seven nuclear powered icebreakers, and even Sweden has a fleet of five. There is little room for failure in missions to the Arctic and Antarctic, as there is only one cutter to service each area and there are no other backups. The Coast Guard has requested new icebreakers from Congress, but they have not been authorized due to the $1 billion price tag that comes with each new icebreaker.
The icebreaker USCGC Glacier is shown approaching McMurdo Station, Antarctica. A cargo vessel is seen in the left foreground docked at a floating ice pier. The U.S. Navy commissioned the Glacier in August 1955, after which she participated in the first Operation Deep Freeze, which included the construction of McMurdo. The Navy transferred the Glacier to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1966.
A lack of funding for the Coast Guard has long been one of the service’s biggest issues, and with an aging fleet of cutters and aircraft, the small allowance the USCG gets yearly to replace assets is spent elsewhere first. As the ice melts in the Arctic, traffic and commerce will continue to increase, and other Arctic nations are beginning to create a larger foothold in the area. Both Russia and Finland have contracts for even more icebreakers, leaving the U.S. stranded in the ice if the government cannot compete.
Editor’s note: A special thanks to Ensign Sam Krakower, USCG for his expertise in Coast Guard Arctic Policy.