As The Arctic Opens Up, The U.S. Is Down To A Single Icebreaker : Parallels Melting ice means more of the Arctic is accessible to exploration and shipping, and countries are racing to establish a presence. But they still need heavy icebreakers, and the U.S. is falling behind.

As The Arctic Opens Up, The U.S. Is Down To A Single Icebreaker

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Global warming may be melting some of the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle, but navigating this region still requires icebreakers. Those are the heavy-duty ships that are able to bust through massive multi-layers of ice covering much of the area. Many countries are building up icebreaker fleets, but, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, not the U.S.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Melting ice in the Arctic means better access to oil and gas and shipping lanes. But the area is still mostly frozen over, and it's the U.S. Coast Guard that's responsible for search and rescues, protecting the environment and defending U.S. sovereignty. The problem is the Coast Guard doesn't have enough icebreakers, says Shiva Polefka, an Arctic specialist at the Center for American Progress.

SHIVA POLEFKA: At present we have one heavy icebreaker that's capable of accessing all corners of the Arctic year-round. That's the Polar Star.

NORTHAM: The Polar Star was built back in the 1970s and was designed to last three decades. It's now in its 40th year and showing its age. But at least it's still operational, unlike its sister icebreaker, the Polar Sea.

POLEFKA: The Polar Sea had a major engine breakdown in 2010, had to be towed into its home port of Seattle, and it's basically been kind of just rusting in the docks in Seattle.

NORTHAM: There's another smaller icebreaker used for scientific research, but it doesn't have the capabilities of the Polar Star. Having just one old, heavy U.S. icebreaker at a time when countries are jockeying for position in the Arctic weighs heavy on Admiral Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

ADMIRAL PAUL ZUKUNFT: Russia has approximately 27 ocean-going icebreakers. Some of those are nuclear-powered and so we're not even in the same league as Russia right now.

NORTHAM: Canada, Finland, Sweden - all have more icebreakers than the U.S. China - hardly what you call an Arctic nation - recently commissioned its second icebreaker. India is in the process of acquiring its own. Commandant Zukunft says several studies have found the U.S. needs six new icebreakers to carry out the Coast Guard's increased mission.

ZUKUNFT: Three heavy icebreakers and then three medium icebreakers. I'd be happy with one right now.

NORTHAM: But he's unlikely to get that anytime soon.

ZUKUNFT: And my acquisition budget for this year is $1.1 billion to buy new stuff. That would be one icebreaker and nothing else.

NORTHAM: The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security, which has a tiny budget compared to the Pentagon, says Polefka with the Center for American Progress.

POLEFKA: Just as a comparison, the Navy intends to spend about $20 billion per year for the next, I think, 20 years to build new ships. And yet the Navy says explicitly in their strategic planning documents that they depend on the Coast Guard to access icy waters. The Navy has no icebreakers of their own.

NORTHAM: But neither the Pentagon nor any other U.S. agency has stepped up to pay for even one icebreaker. Malte Humpert, the executive director of the Arctic Institute, says that's likely because of uncertainty about what's going to happen in the Arctic, how fast the ice will melt and whether it's worth investing in heavy polar breakers.

MALTE HUMPERT: It's not like a destroyer or a frigate that you can use anywhere around the world. You can really just use it in the Arctic for very specific purposes, and the Arctic is not the current main theater of engagement. Everything is shifting towards the Pacific, and the Arctic's only the tertiary theater.

NORTHAM: Humpert says the Arctic doesn't have the same strategic importance in the U.S. as it does in other northern nations. He says one-fifth of Russia's GDP is generated above the Arctic and 40 percent of its future oil and gas lies under the frozen waters.

HUMPERT: So from that perspective, it makes a lot more sense to build icebreakers to gain access, to open the shipping lanes and so forth.

NORTHAM: Coast Guard Commandant Zukunft doesn't buy that argument.

ZUKUNFT: Our GDP is at least eight times that of Russia, and yet, we say we can't afford an icebreaker. We just need to make it a priority.

NORTHAM: The Polar Star, the only U.S. heavy icebreaker in use, is expected to reach the end of its life by 2020. After that, the Coast Guard may need to rethink its motto of semper paratus, or always ready. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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