The Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped by thick ice and stranded near Antarctica since Christmas Eve, despite several rescue attempts. The crew is safe and hopefully will be rescued soon, but the ship’s predicament has highlighted the need for greater U.S. icebreaking capabilities.
While the Akademik Shokalskiy is ice-hardened, it lacks the icebreaking capability necessary to free itself from its current position. The Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon has attempted to aid the stranded ship, but it lacks the heavy-duty capability required to break through thick ice. The Australian research and resupply icebreaker Aurora Australis has also failed to reach the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy because it is not a heavy-duty icebreaker.
“The ice became too thick for us to penetrate…. There was just nowhere for us to go,” the Aurora’s captain reported yesterday.
A helicopter rescue mission is being considered, but poor weather conditions have so far prevented that as well. The surest way to reach the stranded crew is by heavy-duty icebreaker, but none are near the Akademik Shokalskiy. The United States is currently sailing its only heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, to the McMurdo Antarctic base. Chris Turney, the Akademik Shokalskiy’s research leader, has commented that the Polar Star would be able to free them from their current state.
“We’ve got word that the American icebreaker, a beautiful vessel called the Polar Star, is near,” Turney said. “If that were to come, it would definitely get us out. There’s a variety of options. We’re just keeping hope.”
Yet, the Coast Guard reported that the Polar Star’s services have not been solicited, and said the shop would need two weeks’ sailing time to reach the stranded Russian vessel, according to spokesman Lieutenant Paul Rhynard.
Perhaps the Polar Star will eventually help if poor weather continues, but the time it has taken for a capable vessel to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy illustrates a gap in U.S. polar security. The Polar Star only recently set sail after a comprehensive overhaul that cost nearly $60 million. The vessel, built in the 1960s, is well past its service life and needed serious repairs to be seaworthy again. Even these repairs have only prolonged the service life of the Polar Star for another seven to 10 years.
In the meantime, the Coast Guard sails only one other icebreaker, the Healy, which is primarily a research vessel in the Arctic and is not classified as heavy duty. These two icebreakers fall well below the Coast Guard’s requirement of three heavy-duty and three medium icebreakers. A new icebreaker is in the works, but its $1 billion price tag combined with the myriad other procurement needs and a shrinking Coast Guard budget indicate that it won’t be built any time soon.
With economic interests in the Arctic rising and capability gaps in the Antarctic, the U.S. needs to forge a new path when it comes to icebreaking. The Navy, which has been suggested as a potential bill payer for this fleet, has too many shipbuilding funding concerns of its own to legitimately take on an additional multi-billion-dollar project. Instead, the U.S. should look to lease foreign heavy-duty icebreakers from the private sector. These vessels are not as militarily robust as those in the Coast Guard, but they would provide the icebreaking capability the U.S. currently lacks, immediately and cost-effectively.
It appears the crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy will remain safe until rescued. However, the U.S. should fill its icebreaking capability gap before a more serious incident occurs.