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Smashing Through the Ice

They call it Operation Deep Freeze.

For 23 years, the Coast Guard’s Cutter Polar Star has been smashing through the Antarctic ice to allow logistics vessels to resupply members of the United States Antarctic Program. She did it again this year, reaching McMurdo Station on January 22 after a 58-day passage from her homeport of Seattle.

Operation Deep Freeze is a critical mission, because the supplies it brings have to last the National Science Foundation’s scientists and their support crews in the Antarctic for an entire year. If the 399-foot, 13,000-ton Polar Star can’t break the ice, the three logistics vessels that follow can’t deliver the nearly 20 million pounds of dry goods and 7.7 million gallons of fuel the scientists need to do their work.

The United States Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965. Shockingly, Polar Star is the United States’ only operational heavy ice breaker and if she gets stuck in the ice, the United States cannot perform a self-rescue. Its only other ice breaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, is deployed in the Arctic and the two vessels trade turns going in and out of drydock for maintenance.

The Polar Star is also 44 years old, which means she is getting long in the tooth. Fortunately, last April the Coast Guard contracted for the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s lead polar security cutter (PSC), which includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs.

That still puts the United States far behind Russia, which currently operates more than 50 icebreakers, although the United States relies heavily on the Canadian Coast Guard’s 19 icebreakers, especially in the Arctic region.

"Replacing the Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet is paramount," said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the Coast Guard's Pacific Area. "Our ability to clear a channel and allow for the resupply of the United States' Antarctic stations is essential for continued national presence and influence on the continent." 

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