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Polar Star Departs for Antarctic Icebreaking Mission

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By The Maritime Executive 11-27-2019 03:00:00

On Tuesday, the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star departed Seattle for Antarctica, where the cutter will support Operation Deep Freeze 2020, an annual military mission to resupply American interests in Antarctica.

“We set out today on an important mission, saying goodbye to the friends and families who have supported us and our ship for the past seven months since we returned from Operation Deep Freeze 2019,” said Capt. Gregory Stanclik, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “We are looking forward to this year’s mission to McMurdo Station with a ship that is running the best it has since reactivation. This mission is critical to the United States and our continued strategic presence on the Antarctic Continent and I have the best crew possible to ensure we safely accomplish our goal.”

The 43-year-old Polar Star is the United States’ last remaining heavy icebreaker, and this is her seventh deployment in as many years to support the resupply of McMurdo Station – the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica. Each year, the crew of the Polar Star create a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice - sometimes up to 21 feet thick - to allow a resupply vessel to reach McMurdo Station. The supply delivery allows Antarctic stations to stay operational year-round, including during the dark and tumultuous winter. 

The McMurdo Sound breakout is Polar Star's sole mission, and it is harsh duty. The 1970s-era icebreaker is showing her age, and she has suffered several serious engineering casualties during recent Deep Freeze voyages, including flooding and engine failure. When each annual voyage is complete, she returns to drydock for half a year of maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next trip. 

The Coast Guard is seeking to replenish its icebreaking fleet with six new polar security cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the polar regions. In the fiscal year 2019 budget, Congress appropriated $655 million to begin construction of a new polar security cutter this year, with another $20 million appropriated for long-lead-time materials to build a second.

The USCG's Russian counterpart in heavy icebreaker operations, Rosatomflot, operates a fleet of four nuclear-powered vessels for Arctic service, with more on the way.