Ice Breaker: America Plays Catch-up in the Arctic


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New heavy-duty, nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers can plow through nine-foot-deep Arctic ice at a rate of 10 kilometers an hour. The newly operational, 570-foot-long Arktika is flagship for what President Vladimir Putin promises will be a fleet of at least 13 heavy duty icebreakers, nine powered by nuclear reactors.

The United States is far, far behind Russia, and even China, in ships capable of navigating far northern waters. Not for want of trying by two lawmakers.  Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have waged a years-long campaign to give the U.S. a greater presence in the far north as the Arctic ice pack recedes and shipping increases.

At present, the United States has two heavy-duty icebreakers, built in the mid-1970s.  The Polar Sea is being cannibalized for parts to keep the Polar Star operational.  The medium-sized Healy is out of operation due to a severe engine room accident.

The Senators from Washington and Alaska are at last making progress.  One new heavy-duty icebreaker is under construction at a shipyard in Mississippi, and a second is under design.  The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) provides for a fleet of six polar icebreakers, three of which would be based in Seattle.

Angry at a provision that authorizes changing of base names that honor Confederate general (e.g. Fort Braqg and Fort Hood), President Trump says he will veto the defense authorization bill. That bill passed both houses of Congress with two-thirds-plus majorities – 84-13 in the Senate – but will Republican lawmakers have guts to override Trump?

Russian ice-breaker Arktika

Russia has 40 icebreakers of various sizes operating in the Arctic.  Its largest vessels are nuclear powered.  A vessel even larger than the 33,000-ton Arktika is slated for completion in 2027. Russia is also planning to modernize four airports in the Arctic, and to build railroad links and seaports. China has two operational icebreakers, the Xuelong 1 and 2, and is building a third. Its leaders have proclaimed China a “near Arctic nation” and have talked about a “Polar Silk Road” to promote trade with Europe.

“The reality is, there is a race on for the Arctic passageway, and we need to be ready. This formal authorization of six polar icebreakers will send a strong message to the rest of the world -– the United States is showing up in the Arctic,” Cantwell  said after passage of the authorization act.

Murkowski took note of the 1867 land purchase of Alaska from Russia. “The U.S. is an Arctic nation because of Alaska: My priority has long been to raise awareness of America’s role in this rapidly evolving region. As recognized by this year’s NDAA, now more than ever, it is time to move from awareness to action.”

Murkowski and Cantwell are an unusual pair.  They have been on opposite sides in the battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Murkowski has endorsed, and Cantwell opposed, increased logging of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. Still, they’ve found common ground in breaking the ice.  The task now is to override Trump’s veto.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.



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