Andrew Revkin reports in today’s DotEarth that “America’s Heavy Icebreakers are both Broken Down.”
The Polar Sea and the Polar Star are now both out of service, leaving the USCGC Healy as the only functioning U.S. icebreaker. Healy, though not classed as a "heavy icebreaker," is very much in service and currently in the arctic ice (hourly images from above the bridge are accessible here).
Despite calls as recently as February 2010 from Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, in one of his last major speeches before retiring from the post, indicating the urgent need for new icebreakers, the U.S. has no immediate plans for building new icebreakers and the FY 2011 Budget did not address the issue.
By contrast, Canada is pursuing a $3.1 billion dollar project to build five new ice-class vessels, with delivery of the first vessel anticipated in 2014. Another $4.3 billion is necessary for operation and maintenance over the expected 25-year life span. These and other details appear in a December 2009 Report of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans of the Canadian Senate, “Controlling Canada’s Arctic Waters: Role of the Canadian Coast Guard.” Among the Report’s recommendations is “that Canada develop a long-term plan and provide the funding necessary for the acquisition of a suitable number of new multi-purpose polar icebreakers capable of operating year-round it its Arctic Archipelago and on the continental shelf.” The SCFO Report details these plans, and the role of existing Canadian icebreakers in maritime awareness, at pp. 25 ff.
Admiral Allen is of course now heading up the federal response to the fatal BP Gulf Horizon explosion and ongoing spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It bears mention that the next recommendation in the same Canadian Report is "that the Canadian Coast Guard identify areas in the Arctic at high risk of a major cargo or oil spill, assess current response capabilities, and communicate the results of the assessment to Canada's northern communities. The Government of Canada should provide funding to train northern residents in the use of oil spill containment equipment for oil spills close to shore."
For a 2008 story on the National Science Foundation assessment that the U.S. needs three polar icebreakers, see the April 2008 posting at Arctic Economics.
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