Coast Guard seeks feedback on potential impact of 6 new icebreakers

the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in the Nome Harbor Jan. 13, 2012. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

The U.S. Coast Guard is soliciting feedback on their six new polar icebreakers, which are expected to train in Arctic waters as soon as 2023.

Listen now

Commander Kenneth Boda works in the USCG office of cutter forces and is the sponsors’ rep for the heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program. He says the plan is to make at least three of the vessels heavy icebreakers, equipped to travel through the Arctic and Antarctic. That means they have to be Polar Code compliant.

“They are going to be the latest technology, current ice-breaking technology, which is really neat, because they are replacing the Polar class vessels, which were built in the mid ‘70s,” Boda said. “We have three key performance parameters for these vessels. We need them to break six feet of ice at three knots, and we want them to break 21 feet of ridged ice. The second is an endurance requirement. We need it to operate between 80 and 90 days without refueling. And the third is interoperability.”

Currently, most of the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet has exceeded its shelf life. The USCG Cutter Healy, a medium icebreaker, is the only one who hasn’t yet reached 20 years of service.

“She was built for a 30-year service life, commissioned and delivered to us in the year 2000,” Boda said. “So, we are looking ahead at doing a mid-life on Healy in the upcoming years to try to extend her life out further.”

The Healy is the main Coast Guard vessel that has spent time in Nome’s port and would likely be the icebreaker to respond to emergencies in the Arctic presently, like oil spills. Commander Boda has previous experience with the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and says having a larger Coast Guard presence during those incidents is key.

“If you’re looking at a campaign-type response, a response that lasts more than a week, having a mobile platform like this is the way to go,” Boda said. “So, you could see if you had an oil spill that lasted, God forbid, over a month, you would need to be able to get ships up there, you would need to be able to do command and control, have a vessel that can talk to the other ships that are out there, that can direct cleanup operations; those things are important.”

The other benefits the Coast Guard lists from having six new polar icebreakers includes year-round search and rescue capabilities in Alaska, increased data gathering and collaboration with researchers in the Arctic, as well as enforcing marine laws related to fishing.

When it comes to how these polar icebreakers will affect fish and marine life, that is not yet entirely clear, but the Coast Guard says there won’t be significant impacts to biological resources.

“One of the big things that we did for propulsion is we are requiring industry to provide us with two, at least two, podded propulsors,” Boda said. “These podded propulsors actually make the ship extremely maneuverable, and obviously, as these ships get built, we want to get as much feedback as we can from the villages up here, from the communities, and make sure that we are getting you guys something that you need and something that adds value to Alaska.”

Commander Boda and USCG hosted public scoping meetings in Kotzebue and Nome last week. They plan to visit Utqiagvik and Anchorage this month, as well. Public comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for these polar icebreakers are being accepted through June 29th.