by David Rosen, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Historian
On April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, resulting in the loss of 1,517 lives.
In response to the disaster, the first Safety of Life at Sea Convention was held in London the following year. In March 1913, Coast Guard Cutter Seneca was assigned to the first International Ice Patrol, or IIP.
Each year since, a patrol has been maintained. No further vessels have been sunk by icebergs in the area, a tribute to the diligence of the IIP watchstanders.
Captain-Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf was keen to assume this responsibility to forestall a proposed dissolution of the Revenue Service as part of a budget cutback. He re-defined the service by adding the Ice Patrol.
In 1915, Bertholf and Sumner Kimball merged the military Revenue Service with the civilian Lifesaving Service into the modern-day Coast Guard. Bertholf stressed the unique combination of peacetime functions and war preparedness of the Coast Guard, convincing both Congress and the White House of its critical role.
By the early 1920s, it became apparent that Coast Guard officers with professional training were needed to perform ice patrol duties. The Coast Guard therefore established an oceanographic unit at Harvard University to conduct research for the IIP from 1923 to 1931, it was headed by Edward “Iceberg” Smith, who regularized the ice patrol’s tracking of the movements of icebergs. He also initiated a method of iceberg forecasting the number of bergs annually drifting south of Newfoundland.
During the summer of 1928, Smith assumed command of the Coast Guard Cutter Marion, a 125-foot vessel built for offshore-patrol duty. He went to western Greenland to apply his surveying methods to the birthplace of icebergs.
The Marion Expedition was one of the most comprehensive oceanographic studies made by the United States. It departed Boston for Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in July. The 73-day cruise to the Arctic covered 8,100 miles, during which Smith and his team of scientists surveyed an area of nearly half a million square miles between Greenland and Canada. The crew made more than 1,900 recordings of water temperature and salinity at 190 observation stations.
Throughout the 1950’s, IIP gained more confidence in the aerial reconnaissance and the surface patrols became limited to the severe years. While the aircraft began to bear the load of the reconnaissance operations, the ships focused on obtaining ocean and current data.
Today, the IIP monitors the iceberg danger area by physically patrolling the area with Coast Guard aircraft and by receiving reports from commercial aircraft and vessels. All iceberg observations are fed into a computer, which produces a drift and deterioration model using weather and current data. Watchstanders use the model to produce a daily iceberg warning chart which is broadcasted twice daily to the maritime community outlining the iceberg warning area.
Domestic Icebreaking Operations
For the Revenue Cutter Service, ice breaking primarily began as a means to support traditional missions that were impossible in the winter without preparations for ice.
With the advent of steam propulsion in the 1830s and the purchase of Alaska in 1867, ice breaking became a seasonal mission of the Revenue Cutter Service. Early vessels, including Cutters Thetis and Bear, had reinforced hulls which made them ice resistant, but it was not until the early 1900s that cutters were built primarily for ice breaking operations.
By the 1920s, the Coast Guard had become fully committed to ice breaking operations with the original intent of the Revenue Cutter Service – to utilize ice breaking primarily in Alaska and in support of other traditional missions.
On December 21, 1936, domestic ice breaking became a major mission for the service. The Coast Guard was given the first statutory authorization for icebreaking operations – signifying the importance of keeping ports and waterways open for vital economic resources along the Great Lakes and New England coast. Icebreaking operations have evolved from a means to complete primary missions to one of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions.
From 1936 to 1941, the Coast Guard initiated an intensive, comprehensive study into icebreaker technology. Rear Admiral Edward Thiele spearheaded the research, studying the Swedish icebreaker Ymer – commonly considered one of the best icebreakers of the time.
Over the next few decades, the Coast Guard introduced many more classes of cutters with icebreaking characteristics – the 180-foot Balsam Class buoy tenders followed by the 110-foot Appalache class cutters.
Eventually came the commissioning of 15 65-foot icebreaking harbor tugs in the 1960’s and nine 140-foot Bay Class cutters in the 1980’s, many of which still serve the U.S. nation.
Today, the Coast Guard conducts icebreaking operations during the winter months in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. Operation Renewable Energy for Northeast Winters, is a region-wide effort to ensure Northeast communities have the security, supplies, energy, and emergency resources (i.e. home heating oil) they need throughout the winter.
The operation utilizes 225-foot Juniper class buoy tenders, 140-foot Bay class icebreakers and 65-foot harbor tugs to ensure the safe navigation of commercial vessels supplying goods to ports throughout the Northeast. During the 2013 to 2014 icebreaking season, U.S. icebreakers facilitated the safe passage of 20 billion barrels of petro chemical, valued at $3.3 billion.
In the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard conducts ice operations jointly with Canada.
Using a system approach, both U.S. and Canadian-flagged icebreakers facilitate commerce through ice impeded waterways to support both inter-lake and intra-lake trade to both U.S. and Canadian ports. Operation’s Taconite and Coal Shovel assist commercial vessel transits in the connecting waterways of the Great Lakes by utilizing one 240-foot Icebreaking buoy tender, six 140-foot Bay class icebreakers and the Canadian Coast Guard ships Samuel Risley and Griffon.
Both the U.S and Canadians work jointly to facilitate nearly 200 commercial vessel transits with an estimated $4.5 billion worth of cargo each winter season.