Politics & Government

In Arctic 'cold war,' Russia plows ahead

The biggest in Russia's polar icebreaking fleet, named 50 Years of Victory, can power through more than 9 feet of solid ice without slowing down
The biggest in Russia's polar icebreaking fleet, named 50 Years of Victory, can power through more than 9 feet of solid ice without slowing down Prisca Campbell / Quark Expeditions / MCT

WASHINGTON — A new cold war is breaking out in the race for Arctic oil, natural gas and minerals, and it involves front-line icebreakers. Russia has seven and the United States has three, if you count one that's laid up in Seattle and won't be seaworthy for a year.

The competition is heating up because of global warming and high energy prices. They've made the Arctic coastline and seafloor, despite their harsh climate, one of the most appealing places in the world for energy exploration. Much the same goes for the gold, platinum, copper and other metals found along the Arctic coast and likely in its continental shelves.

The increased traffic that Arctic exploitation entails will mean more work for icebreakers, Adm. Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told a House of Representatives committee recently. So will retreating ice, which has opened the Northwest Passage (over Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (above Russia) in summer to container ships and oil tankers.

Not only is Russia's fleet more numerous, it's also nuclear-powered and its icebreakers are bigger. The biggest, named 50 Years of Victory, can power through more than 9 feet of solid ice without slowing down. Ice thicker than 6.5 feet reduces the strongest U.S icebreaker, the diesel-powered Polar Sea, to backing up and ramming.

The differences give Russia a vastly expanded range through Arctic ice, which covers an area as big as California and Texas combined. And that ice locks up nearly a quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We are losing ground in the global competition," Allen told the House committee.

"I'm concerned we are watching our nation's ice-breaking capabilities decline," he later added.

Neither the Northwest Passage, the U.S. continental shelf offshore of Alaska, nor the waters beyond it are charted adequately, according to a study last year by the National Research Council, an independent policy adviser to the federal government. Seabed mapping is a major mission for U.S. icebreakers, and the council concluded that the Coast Guard needs two more of them. Allen told lawmakers he agreed.

The seaworthy U.S. fleet consists of two ships: the Polar Sea, built in 1976 and nearing the end of its 30-year service life, and the Healy, launched in 1997. The Healy was designed mainly for scientific research and can cruise only through ice up to 4.5 feet thick.

The third icebreaker, the Polar Star, is as capable as the Polar Sea, but it's been dock-bound since 2006 awaiting possible refurbishment.

The U.S. and Russia have additional, smaller ships with ice-breaking abilities, but they're not suitable for polar work.

It's natural that Russia — and Canada, for that matter — would care more about ice-breaking than the United States would, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert North said in an interview. Both countries have more ports and citizens and longer shorelines above the Arctic Circle than the United States does. That puts Russia and Canada, which has six icebreakers, at an advantage as Arctic exploration intensifies.

Denmark and Norway, which also border the Arctic, have capable ice-breaking fleets, too.

"We are in a five-nation race for the Arctic, and right now we are running fifth," Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on icebreakers last month.

An incident Tuesday dramatized the shortage.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, an oil-drilling exploration ship and two support vessels got stuck in sea ice offshore of Barrow. The Coast Guard reportedly dispatched the Healy to break up the ice. It would have taken the Healy two days to reach the site 400 miles away.

The stranded vessels freed themselves, but the incident prompted Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to renew her call for more icebreakers.

“While the Healy happened to be in the area, the reality is that we do not have the icebreaking capability that America needs to respond to incidents like this,” she said in a statement.

U.S. icebreakers today serve a variety of missions: In the summer, they steam through Arctic ice and deliver scientists to locations where they map the seabed and collect sediment and wildlife samples. The mapping helps ships navigate and provides a rough draft for oil and gas exploration. Mapping of the underwater continental shelf that stretches offshore for many miles someday could support the United States' claims to Arctic resources.

In the Antarctic, icebreakers cut a channel each year that enables resupply ships to reach the U.S. research base on the shore of McMurdo Sound.

Both poles are seeing a surge in tourism, and the likelihood of using icebreakers for search and rescue missions is growing.

Long-term needs matter, because it takes eight to 10 years to go from approving the construction of new icebreakers to their delivery, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In this session of Congress, the House has authorized a study of the Coast Guard's need for icebreakers. A Senate bill authorizes the construction of two new icebreakers, but it hasn't passed.

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