The U.S. Coast Guard’s sole operational Polar-class heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska on Tuesday (Jan. 5) for a logistics stop for the first time since 2013.
The 44-year-old heavy icebreaker is now around 30 days into a months-long Arctic deployment “to protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security throughout the polar region”. The icebreaker is patrolling the Bering and Chukchi Seas to project power and support national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia.
During the mission’s first leg, Polar Star traversed a historic winter latitude navigating farther north than any U.S. surface ship in history. The Polar Star’s record-breaking winter Arctic latitude, reached on Dec. 25, is 72° 11′ N.
Additionally, the Polar Star crew engaged in various scientific research initiatives, including the deployment of four ice buoys in support of a scientific partnership with the University of Washington (UW) and the Department of the Navy (DoN)’s Office of Naval Research (ONR). In support of National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Polar Star crew also launched multiple sensors to examine Arctic waters.
While moored in Dutch Harbor, for the safety of the cutter’s crew and local citizens, no person will be permitted on or off the Polar Star unless it’s for a pre-approved logistic purpose. Mitigating the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 is paramount for the mission’s continued success and for the safety of the citizens of Dutch Harbor.
Upon departing Dutch Harbor, the Polar Star crew will again transit north and continue to hone the crew’s icebreaking proficiency, conduct scientific research and patrol to detect and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The last time the nation’s sole heavy icebreaker visited Dutch Harbor was July 2013 during ice trails following the unit’s re-activation.
Typically, USCGC Polar Star travels to Antarctica each year in support of Operation Deep Freeze (OpDFrz or ODF), the annual military mission to resupply the United States’ Antarctic stations, in support of the NSF. This year’s maritime resupply at McMurdo Station was cancelled due to COVID-19 safety precautions, and a limited resupply will be conducted via aircraft.
The Coast Guard’s Artic operations is usually conducted by its medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB 20). In August, the 21-year-old Healy suffered an electrical fire in the starboard main propulsion motor cutting short the cutter’s Arctic operations. The motor was recently replaced during a unique dry dock evolution and the nation’s sole medium icebreaker is expected to return to the Arctic in 2021.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965 and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new polar security cutters (PSC) to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.
The Coast Guard awarded VT Halter Marine Inc. a contract for the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s lead polar security cutter, which will also be homeported in Seattle. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs.