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Originally published October 9, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified October 11, 2011 at 6:19 AM

Lawmakers confronting cold reality for pricey icebreakers

The United States is running short of icebreakers, with its only pair of heavy icebreakers, Polar Sea and Polar Star, sidelined in Seattle, one with broken engines and the other undergoing an overhaul to keep it running a decade past its life span.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Climate change is melting parts of the ice-locked Northwest Passage. China is building its first modern icebreaker in hopes of staking claims to Arctic waters. Frigid polar regions are opening up to increased shipping traffic, scientific exploration and tourism.

Yet the United States is so short of icebreakers capable of navigating those still-unpredictable waters that since 2007, it has made the annual supply run to McMurdo Station, the American research outpost in Antarctica, with a ship leased from Sweden.

The nation's two heavy-duty U.S. icebreakers sit sidelined in Seattle, home of the Coast Guard's three-ship icebreaker fleet. The Polar Sea and its twin, the Polar Star, are 1970s-era cutters that have been patched up to keep going past their original life span.

The only working icebreaker is the 12-year-old Healy, which boasts elaborate scientific labs but can break through only thinner ice.

This week, after years of hand-wringing over the nation's diminished Arctic ambitions, Congress will receive what is meant to be the definitive independent analysis on whether it should build new icebreakers or eke even more service out of the two aged vessels.

Paradoxically, experts say, the thinning ice will increase demand for icebreakers as more people flock to the hazardous polar environs.

A National Research Council panel in 2006 concluded the nation's icebreaking capabilities were inadequate to support its polar missions and urged immediate construction of two ships. Another independent study by ABS Consulting in 2010 said the Coast Guard would need three each of heavy and medium icebreakers — double its current fleet.

Regardless of the latest recommendations, Sen. Maria Cantwell is trying to block the service from carrying out a plan she believes would put the United States even further behind — mothballing the 33-year-old Polar Sea and raiding it for parts.

The Washington Democrat has co-sponsored a bill authored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to prevent the service from decommissioning the Polar Sea before the Polar Star returns to service in 2013. The latter ship is undergoing a four-year, $57 million overhaul at Vigor Industrial (formerly Todd Shipyards) on Harbor Island. The work will add seven to 10 years to the ship's service.

Cantwell argues that with a fleet containing only one currently working icebreaker, the Coast Guard can't afford to junk the Polar Sea, as decrepit as it may be. Constructing a new icebreaker could take a decade and as much as $1 billion, money that Congress is unlikely to approve anytime soon.

Cantwell said yanking the Polar Sea from service would leave the Coast Guard with no backup heavy icebreaker.

"What happens if something happens to the Polar Star?" she said.

Polar Sea in limbo

The Coast Guard maintains that retiring the Polar Sea, now docked at its base on Pier 36, would allow the service to channel resources to reactivating its sister ship. Not incidentally, the Polar Sea could be cannibalized for scarce parts.

The 60,000-horsepower Polar Sea was refurbished in 2006, but its engines failed in June 2010. The Coast Guard hasn't fixed the engines because it would cost $22 million and wouldn't extend the Polar Sea's current service-end date of 2014, said Commander Christopher O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, D.C.

The Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has asked for $39 million in fiscal 2012 for its polar icebreaking program.

Icebreakers use their thick steel hulls and overhanging curved bows to bust through ice. The Polar Sea and Polar Star can easily break 6 feet of ice at 3 knots, and 21 feet or more by backing and ramming. They carry a crew of 146 and have room for 32 scientists and a year's supply of food. The Healy, which has half the horse power and needs about half the crew, can break 4 ½ feet of ice going forward.

The state of American capacity to ply frozen waterways has long caused alarm. Thanks to warming polar climates, what was ice is now sometimes water. Some scientists believe that the Northwest Passage, which links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via Canada's Arctic Archipelago, could become ice-free in the summer in this century. That would open a shipping route that would be days or even weeks shorter than traversing the Panama Canal.

The result is more traffic — and more potential trouble, said Jeffrey Garrett, a retired Coast Guard rear admiral who has served on all three icebreakers, including as commanding officer of the Polar Sea.

For instance, more than 325 vessels crossed the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska in 2010, a third more than just two years earlier. In 2007, a Canadian cruise ship became the first such vessel to sink in Antarctica after puncturing its hull on submerged ice.

Garrett traveled through the Northwest Passage last month. He saw hardly any ice, unusual for this time of the year. Now a Mercer Island maritime consultant, Garrett expects to see more oil drilling, tourism, and scientific and shipping activity in the Arctic.

Underequipped

Garrett fears the United States is underequipped to navigate that less-ice-covered world. Earlier this year, Sweden decided to keep its loaner icebreaker Oden closer to home in the frozen Baltic. The National Science Foundation scurried to secure a Russian ship for an upcoming restocking voyage to McMurdo in December or January. The Polar Star and Polar Sea have made those trips in past years.

"You're putting yourself at the mercy of other people's priorities," Garrett said.

Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, which runs the McMurdo Station and is the main user of the three Coast Guard icebreakers, agrees. Colwell believes the United States has long ceded dominance in the Arctic to Russia and other nations.

Like Garrett, Colwell served on the National Research Council panel that recommended building two replacement icebreakers for the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. She called it an urgent military, economic and scientific issue.

But Garrett and Colwell are both resigned to the likelihood that it may be a long while before a modern icebreaker gets built. So it would make sense, they say, to rescue the Polar Sea and squeeze more life out of it.

Garrett acknowledges that could be akin to pouring money into fixing a beat-up gas guzzler. Still, he said, absent any foreseeable money for new vessels, that "is the only tool we have in the short term."

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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