February 01, 2012

Navigating the Icy Arctic is No Ordinary Mission

Last Friday I pointed out that the U.S.
Coast Guard Healy helped the Russian
tanker Renda deliver 1.3 million
gallons of fuel to Nome, Alaska

It may sound like a normal mission for the Coast Guard, but
I’m assured there’s nothing normal about traveling through the ice-covered
Arctic in the middle of winter. I think there is a tendency to forget
that icebreakers perform a crucial mission in the Arctic, during relatively
ice-free summers or in the dead of winter. In this particular instance, the
Coast Guard was helping assure delivery of fuel to the Alaskan town. According
to a U.S. Coast Guard news release, “The [fuel] delivery was
necessary due to an early winter storm that prevented a scheduled fuel resupply
to the city [Nome]

In a meeting I had last week, an official painted a vivid
picture for me about the importance of an icebreaker and what this niche
capability actually gives the United States. The USCG Healy began escorting the Renda
out of Nome on
January 20, 2012 for the nearly 400 mile journey across the frozen Bering Sea
According to this official, as the Healy was
breaking through the ice, the Bering Sea continued to freeze over, extending
its frozen reach. I thought this was an interesting point and one that
certainty points to the importance of icebreakers in helping commercial vessels
plow through the ice, if for nothing else but to avoid a Sisyphusian-like
situation that traps commercial vessels in an endless sea of ice.  On Monday, after 10 days of icebreaking, both the Healy and Renda reached ice-free waters and have parted ways. The Healy has returned to its homeport, Seattle.

Icebreakers perform a critical function. U.S. policymakers
need to have an honest conversation about what the U.S. mission needs to be in
the Arctic and then decide what resources it needs to support that mission.
Having an understanding about the role U.S. icebreakers perform in the Arctic
should help get the conversation going.

Photo: The Healy breaks through ice on its journey to Nome, Alaska. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.