The Polar Star

Near the end of my season, the United States Coast Guard icebreaker ‘Polar Star’ arrived at McMurdo station on the coast of Antarctica and I was able to take a tour of the ship. I spent my first season in Antarctica working on a Swedish icebreaker, The Oden, and so it was interesting to visit the Polar Star to see the differences between the two icebreakers and compare my experiences.

Each austral summer an icebreaker travels down to Antarctica to break up the sea ice near the coast so that a larger transport vessel can travel through the path of broken ice and deliver large equipment and supplies to McMurdo station as part of ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ to support American equipment needs in Antarctica. (Essentially, an icebreaker clears the path for a larger ship to come in behind it.) The icebreaker chosen for this depends on a few factors, including shipping needs in the Arctic ocean and research expeditions at sea, and this year Polar Star was tasked with the job. The Polar Star is quite a lot larger than the Oden, with a population of 142 people working on board during Antarctic operations compared to Oden’s 53 (half of whom were scientists on the Oden). The coast guard ship is capable of breaking ice up to 21ft thick, and operates by ramming forward and slightly onto the ice with a rounded hull, then backing out, giving the ice time to move away before ramming forward again. When the ship is in full icebreaking mode we can see it from the coastal stations, moving forward and retreating numerous times to clear a path through the ice. The ship has an 18,000 diesel horsepower capacity, equivalent to that of approximately 90 cars.

On our tour, a coast guard sea ice diver guided us around the ship, showing us the bridge, control room, cafeteria, gym, movie room, and even a little coffee hut they have onboard.

20140130_190354bView of the USCG Polar Star on the ice dock at McMurdo station

20140130_190107bGathering for a tour

20140130_183528View of the life boats, with the Royal Society mountain range of Antarctica in the background

20140130_181234bOn the Bridge

20140130_184415bOne of the control rooms on the ship

20140130_184444bUnfortunately my photo of their route from Seattle didn’t come out clearly, so I added notes. The Polar Star left Seattle in early December, crossing through the Pacific Ocean, and arrived at McMurdo in the second week of January.

Icebreaking ships have been in the news a bit recently because a Russian ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy, became stuck in thick sea ice near Antarctica. A Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (chinese for ‘Snow Dragon’) was sent to help break up the ice and pick up the people stranded onboard, but this ship *also* became stuck. Two additional ships, the Australian ‘Aurora Australis’ and the French Astrolab were unable to travel far enough towards the two trapped ships due to the thickness of sea ice, and so the Polar Star, already enroute to Antarctica from Seattle, was tasked to free the two vessels in early January before arriving at McMurdo station. Luckily changes in the flow of pack ice freed both ships before the Polar Star arrived so a rescue wasn’t necessary, but this event has highlighted the need for strong icebreakers if ships are going to continue traveling through areas that have thick, multi-year sea ice in either the Arctic or the Southern (Antarctic) oceans.

The Oden operated in a similar manner but was designed to slide slightly further onto the ice, then ‘rock’ on top of the ice in a method called heeling to help break the ice from underneath the ship. Heeling works by mechanically shifting ballast (weight) from one side of the ship to the other and back again and accentuates the force already exerted on the ice by the ship. It creates a loud, vibrating and ‘jutting’ feeling on the ship, which was interesting to experience because you can feel the power of the engines as you walk around on board. I’ve included a short video I took in 2008 when I worked onboard the Oden, but it’s a little difficult to see the action of the ship tilting from side to side because since I’m standing onboard, myself and my camera are moving along with the ship.


Posted on 2014, in *Season 3: Life in the Dry Valleys, 2014 (03/05) The Polar Star. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: