By Margaret Bauman
A call for US Coast Guard assistance in freeing a Russian cruise ship and Chinese icebreaker stranded in the ice in Antarctica has prompted a new cry for beefing up United States icebreaking capacity at sea.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Jan. 5 that the United States needs to have an active presence in polar regions, particularly the US Arctic zone, to provide security and safety for travels at sea. The senator chairs the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
The request for Coast Guard assistance diverted the 399-foot Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star from its mission resupplying the US Antarctic research center at McMurdo Station to freeing Russia’s Akademik Shaokalskiy and China’s Xue Long.
Then on Jan. 7, Coast Guard officials announced that both stranded vessels had broke through the ice, thanks to changing wind conditions, and the Polar Star was released from the mission.
The Russian cruise ship was stuck in the ice south of Tasmania for several weeks when the Xue Long was brought in to help free the cruise ship. Crewmembers aboard the Xue Long were able to airlift 52 passengers from the cruise ship before the Xue Long also became icebound.
The Polar Star, which is 38 years old, recently completed a three-year, $90 million overhaul and is capable of breaking through ice thickness of up to 21 feet. It is the Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker.