With the increased melting of polar ice, the possibility for more efficient routes through the Arctic is ever increasing. Icebreakers are a key to keeping these routes safe and clear. Nations like Canada, Finland and the Soviet Union are far more prepared than the US to meet the challenges of navigating the Arctic which is ever becoming a more strategic area. As polar ice is destabilized, freezing and thawing become erratic increasing the necessity for reliable icebreakers.
The US has a single icebreaker but may have plans for interim acquisition through leasing. Another possibility is sharing with the technologically advanced Finnish fleet. Icebreakers are a foundation for safe development of the polar regions (Poulin). In contrast to the US lack of icebreakers, the Soviet Union has 44 ships.
Icebreakers rely on thick steel, reinforced hulls and high levels of horsepower to break through ice. They are fitted with onboard pumps and tanks that rock the boat by shifting water from side to side. A single icebreaker could consume as much as one tenth of the US Coast Guard’s total proposed budget for fiscal 2016, $9.96 billion (Poulin).

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The Polar Star is the Coast Guard’s one remaining icebreaker and is scheduled to be retired by 2019. While it might be extraordinarily expensive to gear up with new icebreakers rapidly, leasing and sharing are 2 different ways that we can keep pace with the new challenges proposed by Arctic sea lane development in a time of melting ice.

As sea ice disappears shipping lanes are opening in polar areas where valuable resources that include mineral deposits, fisheries and energy reserves like gas may be worth as much as $30 trillion. The largest icebreakers weigh over 13,000 tons and can break through 20 ft thick ice. Icebreakers like the Polar Star provide services that include law enforcement, environmental protection, and clearing safe a safe passage for other ships. The White House sees the role of icebreakers as one that facilitates global commerce, protects and manages natural resources and promotes regional stability (Whitehouse). Coastguard Admiral, Robert Papp emphasized our responsibility to protect the ocean from the people using it (Meyers).

Implementing US policy that expands our icebreaking capability is essential to our success in securing the protection of US interests in the arctic, while playing a part in environmental safety. It may be to our best advantage to rely upon the services of the most highly effective producers of icebreakers such as those in Finland.

More energy efficient ice breakers are being developed to meet environmental regulations such as the Polar Code, Environmental Efficiency Index, and the IMO Sulphur Emissions Directive. Ice breaker manufacturers like AARC are constantly innovating to incorporate greater efficiencies in their designs and they use significantly less fuel than conventional ships. Aker Arctic is a company that is leading this technology (Stewan).

The Oblique and Trimaran icebreakers create channels through the ice that are twice the width of those of traditional icebreakers but these ships are smaller and have more energy efficient designs consuming less fuel and creating lower emissions. These vessels are effective in reacting to environmental disasters such as energy spills (Stewan).

Albedo, temperature and erratic weather
How much does Albedo reduction caused by climate change contribute to sea-level rise and global warming? Expanding ocean areas cause an increase in light absorption and a decrease in light reflection hence lower albedo levels. Increasing temperatures lead to high rising water levels with potentially large impacts especially in coastal areas. Scientists have determined that global sea level has been steadily rising since 1900 at a rate of at least 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year (NOAA). Fresh snow is white and has an albedo of .95.  By contrast, water is dark and has a low albedo of .10.  The average albedo of earth is .30.  Dark surfaces have a low albedo and light surfaces have a high albedo (Curry). 

As ocean warming results from increasing global temperature, warmer water expands. The result is an increased volume in the ocean basin and a rise in water level. As ice melts on land surfaces more water drains into the ocean causing addition rise. Roughly 90 percent of earth’s heat energy is caused by human activities and effects oceans temperatures. Columbia University’s geoscientist Peter Schlosser says that the amount of heat energy entering the oceans since 1997 is equivalent to the atomic bomb explosion of Hiroshima occurring each second for the past 75 years. This has resulted in today’s blue arctic which is in part responsible for some of the brutal freezing temperatures in parts of the US (Yulsman).

Ellen Stofan, Nasa’s chief scientist, gave a high level view of the process that is causing much of today’s extreme weather. The ocean is dark and that absorbs more heat than the reflective ice that is diminishing. The additional heat reenters the climate system adding energy. Now the disproportionate arctic warming caused by shrinking arctic ice has caused changes in the jet stream. There are more deep valleys and peaks. The difference in temperature between lower and higher latitudes has diminished (Francis).

Economic concerns and environmental policy
An environmental and economic goal in icebreaker policy concerns how much the total energy cost of building and using icebreakers is offset by fuel cost savings of the ships that use cleared arctic sea lanes. Currently it costs only $150 million to produce a single icebreaker in Finland. This is one of the lowest costs. An environmentally effective policy might involve sharing icebreakers among Finland, Canada and US. Much-needed ice-ready ships produced for environmental safety in the ever more challenging Arctic environment evolving with climate change is a basis for ethical arctic development (Vauraste).

Economically it is essential for the US to do what it takes to secure American interest in Arctic expansion. This involves using the most environmentally safe means to keep waterways clear of ice while minimizing dangers, environmental and otherwise. This polar region has been a pristine area and it’s important that it continues to be so. High traffic shipping often leads to environmental disasters such as BP’s ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It will take a high degree of commitment to prevent environmental disasters in this race for arctic dominance.

  • Curry.  Sea Ice Albedo Climate Feedback Mechanism. http://curry.eas.gatech.edu/currydoc/Curry_JC8.pdf
  • Francis, J. Climate Change Driving Brutal Winter. http://news.rutgers.edu/news/climate-change-driving-brutal-winter/20150217#.Vq050VMrKRs
  • Meyers. US is Playing Catch Up with Russia in Scramble for Arctic. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/world/united-states-russia-arctic-exploration.html?_r=0
  • NOAA. How is sea level rise related to climate change? http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevelclimate.html
  • Poulin. America Must Build More Icebreakers or We’ll Lose the Battle for the Arctic. Wired. http://www.wired.com/2016/01/america-must-build-more-icebreakers-or-well-lose-the-battle-for-the-arctic/
  • Stewen. Finish Icebreakers Clear a Polar Path. http://finland.fi/business-innovation/finnish-icebreakers-clear-a-polar-path/
  • Vauraste. A Better Way to Build Icebreakers: Collaboration. http://www.arcticdeeply.org/op-eds/2016/02/8477/build-icebreakers-collaboration/
  • Whitehouse. President Obama Announces New Investments to Enhance Safety and Security in the Changing Arctic. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/01/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-new-investments-enhance-safety-and
  • Yulsman, Tom. As the ‘blue Arctic’ expands thanks to global warming, an icebreaker finds no ice to break. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2016/01/30/an-icebreaker-with-no-ice-to-break-in-blue-arctic/