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Icebreaker Imprint
May 23, 2002
The bow of the Polar Sea leaves an imprint during ice breaking operations.

A variety of natural factors caused the sea ice near McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation’s logistical hub in Antarctica, to be far more extensive and much thicker during the 2001-2002 research season than previously recorded in the history of the U.S. Antarctic Program. As a result, two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers were dispatched to clear a channel into the station so that crucial resupply and refueling operations could be carried out. Usually, that work is done by only one icebreaker.

Initial estimates in November placed the edge of the ice at over 70 miles from McMurdo station. Although subsequent storms helped to break-up the ice, the two 399-foot icebreakers were left with the still daunting task of breaking a roughly 40-mile channel. According to Polar Star’s Executive Officer, Richard Kermond, "What normally would have taken us a day to break, took us almost 9 days to break."

The Polar Sea and Polar Star prepare to escort a ship down the channel.

image: Peter West/National Science Foundation
Polar Sea’s Captain Johnson explained how his ship breaks the ice. "Polar Sea will move continuously through 6 feet of ice at three knots, about five miles per hour, and back and ram through up to 21 feet of ice. If you look at it as a lever, we’ll ride up on the ice and the weight of the ship will drive down the ice and we’ll break it that way."

The two ships working in tandem successfully kept the channel open throughout the season. Failure to break a channel could have caused problems for the U.S. Antarctic program not only this season, but next as well.

image: Peter West/National Science Foundation

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