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Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker on special Arctic mission

Ship’s crew fulfilling scientific, national security objectives

The Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on Tuesday. The ship made a logistics stop 30 days into a monthslong Arctic deployment to protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security throughout the polar region.

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star navigates Gulf of Alaska on Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Besides clearing shipping lanes, the 44-year-old heavy icebreaker is patrolling the Bering and Chukchi seas to support national security objectives in Alaskan waters and into the Arctic. This includes the maritime boundary line between the United States and Russia.

Polar Star is the country’s only “heavy” icebreaker, Coast Guard Capt. Bill Woityra told FreightWaves. “It has the propulsion power and a strong enough hull to go anywhere on Earth anytime of the year,” he said. “We can break any ice in the Arctic or the Antarctic in the summer, the fall, the spring or the winter.”

During the mission’s first leg, Polar Star traversed a historic winter latitude, reaching 72 degrees 11 minutes north on Christmas Day. This was the first time since 1982 that the vessel ventured above the Arctic Circle.

While moored in Dutch Harbor, nobody will be permitted on or off the Polar Star unless it’s for preapproved logistical purposes. Mitigating the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 is crucial for the mission’s continued success, as well as for the safety of the people of Dutch Harbor.

The crew has 135 permanently assigned members, but 20 of them will stay in Seattle for advanced training classes.

“We have brought about 20 people to augment the crew … from different Coast Guard units to fill in the gaps but also from partner agencies and nations,” Woityra explained.

The crew has also been involved in various scientific research projects, including the deployment of four ice buoys. This is in partnership with the University of Washington and Office of Naval Research. Additionally, in support of the National Science Foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Polar Star crew has launched multiple sensors to examine Arctic waters in a region from which little scientific data exists.

Polar Star went through a major renovation and refitting from 2009 to 2012. But it’s so old that replacement parts are not available, so it will have to be replaced. Woityra thinks the ship can last another seven to 10 years, and the Coast Guard has invested $1 billion to buy three new heavy icebreakers.

“We call them the Polar Security Cutters,” Woityra said. “That contract was awarded two years ago, and construction starts this month on the first one and it will be delivered in 2024.”

The last time Polar Star visited Dutch Harbor was in July 2013 during ice trials following the unit’s reactivation. From 2014 until its current mission, Polar Star was devoted entirely to breaking ice in Antarctica to help resupply McMurdo Station.

Upon departing Dutch Harbor on Thursday, the Polar Star crew will head back north and continue to hone its ice-breaking skills. They will conduct more scientific research, as well as patrol waters to detect and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. Woityra said the ship might stop in Dutch Harbor again on its return voyage, but It has to be back in Seattle to dry dock starting in March.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.