Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Speaking of Icebreakers ... what about Antarctica? NSF contracts with Russian icebreaker.

This blog has written of icebreakers on several occasions (e.g. January 2009 and June 2010), but has focused largely on U.S. and Canadian ice breaking needs in the Arctic.  In early August, the U.S. National Science Foundation announced that the Swedish  government would not be deploying its escort icebreaker Oden south to Antarctica in 2011, as has been the practice in recent years.  The Oden, one of seven icebreakers operated by the Swedish Maritime Administration, is thus not available either for joint research with other countries in the Southern Ocean, or for the annual breakout of the channel that allows the resupply of certain research stations in Antarctica (McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and field camps in the interior of the Antarctic continent).
In mid-August, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (Washington) and Mark Begich (Alaska) pointed to the practice of contracting with foreign governments for Antarctic ice breaking services when speaking against plans to decommission the Polar Sea, one of the United States' three aging icebreakers.  As Senator Cantwell's press release states "Decommissioning Polar Sea would leave the U.S. with only one operational icebreaker, the Healy, which was designed primarily as a scientific research vessel and only has medium icebreaking capability. The second heavy duty icebreaker, Polar Star, is currently in Seattle being refitted after years in ‘caretaker’ status, when the vessel is out of active service but still receives routine upkeep and maintenance. The United States Navy has no icebreaking capability."

On August 25, 2011, the NSF issued a letter announcing that the "NSF has entered into a letter contract for the services of the Vladimir Ignatyuk, a diesel-powered Russian icebreaker owned by the Murmansk Shipping Company. This ship is the sister to Canada's Terry Fox."

The good news is that Antarctic science stations will continue to be resupplied through international cooperation.  The bad news, which should make its way to the highest level of policy making in the United States, is that our ice breaking capacity is woefully inadequate: inadequate for scientific research North and South, and inadequate for emergency response to oil spills and other potential problems arising from increased exploitation of petroleum resources in the Arctic and from increased marine traffic in the North generally.

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.