One recent example of international drama that involved cooperation rather than confrontation was the voyage of the U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star from home port in Seattle to McCurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, to help resupply and refuel scientific research programs there.
By early January, the Polar Star had sailed south to Sydney, Australia. Word came that the Chinese icebreaker Xue Lon, or Snow Dragon, which had been dispatched to assist the icebound Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy, had itself become encased by ice. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which was coordinating rescue operations, asked the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance in freeing the Russian and Chinese ships. The Polar Star set course for the distressed ships.
All of which set off a rah-rah hometown reaction from Seattle – which, sadly, many Coloradans may have come to expect – the gist of which was that the “baddest” ship of its kind was off to “kick some ice.” Alas, it wasn’t to be.
The story is picked up from there by Alex Maas, the stellar blogger and CU Boulder graduate student who is concluding her third research season in Antarctica.
“Luckily changes in the flow of pack ice freed both ships before the Polar Star arrived so a rescue wasn’t necessary, but this event has highlighted the need for strong icebreakers if ships are going to continue traveling through areas that have thick, multi-year sea ice in either the Arctic or the Southern (Antarctic) oceans,” Maas wrote in her blog, “The Last Degrees,” a reference to the highest latitudes and lowest temperatures on earth.
Maas’ work is regularly featured in the newsletter from CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, or INSTAAR, and has been featured in this space before.
The Polar Star “is capable of breaking ice up to 21-feet thick, and operates by ramming forward and slightly onto the ice with a rounded hull, then backing out, giving the ice time to move away before ramming forward again,” she wrote.
And, in truth, Seattle should feel a little proud. The Polar Star only recently returned to active duty after a three-year, $90 million refurbishment, and is the only heavy icebreaker currently in the U.S. fleet.