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The only U.S. ship capable of breaking through Antarctica's thick ice is getting scrubbed down, fixed up and loaded with goods in balmy Hawaii. It has been preparing to head to the frigid south.
The voyage by Coast Guard cutter Polar Star comes as the U.S. looks to replace and expand its aging fleet of polar icebreakers. The U.S. wants to maintain a presence in the most remote corners of the world. The demand for icebreaking ships is expected to grow. That's because climate change melts sea ice and lures more traffic to northern Arctic waters.
"The specter in the future is more marine use in the Arctic. More shipping and more offshore development. More tourism," said Lawson Brigham. He is a professor of geography and Arctic policy. He teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Coast Guard needs to be able to enforce U.S. laws as well as search for and rescue people in the Arctic like it does in other waters, Brigham said. Though sea ice is melting faster than before, the Arctic Ocean is fully or partially covered by ice for about three-quarters of the year.
The Seattle-based ship has stopped in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to stock up on food and fuel. It was scheduled to leave Dec. 19 to carve a channel through 30 miles of ice in Antarctica. That would allow ships to resupply a U.S. research center. The Polar Star has been delayed by last-minute repairs.
The Polar Star specializes in the Antarctic mission. That is because it can handle the thicker ice. That leaves the jobs in the Arctic to a medium icebreaker. It is the cutter Healy.
The 40-year-old Polar Star was built to last only three decades of grinding through thick sheets of ice. The ship forces its way through. It rides up on ice and crushes it. When it can't break through, it backs up and rams the ice.
Brigham said policymakers have debated expanding the icebreaker fleet for decades. Climate change adds a new element to the discussion.
More cargo ships have been taking Arctic routes as the planet warms. Last summer, a luxury cruise liner sailed to Nome, Alaska. Then it went farther north to become the largest ship to ever traverse the Northwest Passage. Melting ice also will attract those seeking to extract oil, metals and other natural resources.
The U.S. should be present in the northern and southern reaches of the planet as a global power, Brigham said.
Russia has 40 icebreakers. The country owns more than half of the Arctic Ocean coastline. It operates over a much larger stretch of icy seas. Russia's fleet is primarily used to escort commercial ships. Coast Guard icebreakers only do so in emergencies, Brigham said.
Coast Guard Capt. Michael Davanzo is the Polar Star's commanding officer. He told reporters that the agency needs additional icebreakers partly in case something goes wrong.
"If we go down there on this trip and we run into problems, there's nobody down there who can come and help us," he said.
The Coast Guard has only one other heavy icebreaker, the Polar Sea. It also was built in the 1970s and isn't operational. The agency is using some of its parts to keep the Polar Star running.
The Coast Guard has said it needs three total heavy icebreakers. Those ships can bust through ice 6 feet thick. It also wants three other icebreakers that can break slightly thinner ice, like the Healy.
On the Polar Star's upcoming journey to Antarctica, 14 months' worth of food will be aboard for the crew. That is in case the ship gets stuck and needs to wait until next year's thaw to get out.
If that happens, some of the crew would be flown off the ship. Others would stay behind until the vessel is able to break its way out or get a tow when the weather warms.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can climate change impact tourism?
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