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Icebreakers: Save the old ones, build more new ones

Posted: August 25, 2011 - 8:51am

Our nation’s lack of preparedness in a key area of national security and commerce is shocking. Emerging global shipping lanes have drawn the attention of all Arctic nations as polar ice recedes. Every nation with a claim is pressing that claim. Russia announced in July it would send troops into the far north, joining Finland, Norway and Sweden, which already have troops stationed to defend their interests.

Countries are hungry to explore for mineral, oil and other natural resources and seek new fishing grounds.

A U.S. Coast Guard study cited by Sen. Mark Begich says America needs six heavy duty icebreakers and four medium icebreakers to support U.S. Navy and Coast Guard missions.

Where is our fleet of state-of-the-art icebreakers?

They don’t exist.

America is doing next to nothing to improve its ability to keep Arctic sea lanes clear and safe for our merchant and military vessels by keeping our current ships operational and designing and building modern icebreakers.

We agree with Sens. Begich and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) the Coast Guard’s current move to decommission America’s last major icebreaker is a poor idea. We also believe a new generation of icebreakers is needed.

America has one operational Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy. It was built as a research vessel and only has medium ice-breaking capabilities. The Coast Guard plans to decommission the second operational vessel, the Polar Sea.

A third vessel, the heavy-duty icebreaker Polar Star is being refitted until 2013. The move comes late and after the vessel spent time out of service on “caretaker” status, getting only routine maintenance.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who has trekked across the country on a mission to raise awareness of this and other crucial Arctic issues, has mirrored the concerns reflected last week by the senators listed above.
Perhaps some old ice breakers can be brought back into service.

There is one icebreaker that has a thin chance of being saved if the government was more interested in fixing it than turning it into scrap or an artificial reef. The decommissioned USS/USCG Glacier has received volunteer maintenance for years from former crew members and their friends and families as the historic vessel floated among rotting reserve fleet relics in Northern California’s Suisun Bay. It is on the government’s historic review list, so its fate is not yet sealed.

During economic boom times the non-profit Glacier Society gathered donations and was even offered title to the vessel, which was to have been towed for refitting to become a floating lab or medical ship for Arctic Circle communities. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other D.C. lawmakers backed the plan to bring the ship to Alaska.

Although the society’s website updates seem to stop in 2009 — and calls to its office are not returned — the work already done aboard the vessel remains. Hull soundings were taken and the vessel was determined to still be seaworthy.

Unless more severe deterioration has set in, perhaps a better use for the famed polar explorer Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s last Antarctic flagship would be a tow to a shipyard and retrofitting for at least limited sea duty until new vessels can come online.

All the old icebreakers in the world — and there are very few — won’t make much of a difference unless new vessels are commissioned. Aging icebreakers should be saved if feasible, but a new and efficient generation of icebreakers is a necessity.

Perhaps the one good thing about the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s costly new prototype passenger ferry is that it is a working design of an ice-breaking vessel that converts to a catamaran-style vessel or a barge-like vessel with a shallow draft.

Whether this hybrid ship, (it holds 20 cars and 130 passengers) built in Ketchikan at a cost of more than $78 million, will ever do more than short-haul passengers and freight across the Knik Arm remains to be seen. (With no place to dock in Anchorage or the Mat-Su, it remains uncertain the ferry will even do that.) But, if it works, another design option for future ice-breaking ships will be proven.

Whatever happens in the future, keeping our present small fleet operational must be a priority, along with the development of new icebreakers. We hope our D.C. delegation continues to work in a unified fashion on vital issues like these that affect the future health and well-being of not just our state, but also our nation.

— Juneau Empire, Aug. 18

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