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Antarctic Incident Demonstrates Need for Stronger US Icebreaker Capability

Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker Called to Assist Russian, Chinese Icebreakers

The request for assistance from Russian and Chinese vessels stranded in the Antarctic ice demonstrates the need for a more robust U.S. icebreaking capacity, U.S. Senator Mark Begich said today. The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star is being diverted from its mission resupplying McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center, to assist in freeing the ice-trapped Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long

"The rescue attempt by the Polar Star once again highlights the need for heavy icebreaking assets in the Coast Guard's fleet," said Sen. Begich "I'm glad we had the right asset in the right place at the right time. But frankly, we got lucky that our one heavy icebreaker was close by. The Obama administration should view this as a wake-up call—we need to start investing in heavy icebreakers for the Coast Guard now."

The Russian cruise ship has been stuck in the ice south of Tasmania for several weeks.  The Chinese icebreaker, also known as the “Snow Dragon,” was brought in to help free Russian vessel and was able to airlift its 52 passengers to safety before it too became icebound.  The remaining crew aboard each vessel and are not believed to be in immediate peril.

“Incidents such as these are becoming more frequently more and more people travel to polar regions for shipping, resource development, and tourism,” Senator Begich said. “The United States needs an active presence in these waters capable of asserting security and safety – especially in the U.S. Arctic zone which every year is attracting more marine traffic.”

The 38-year old Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar ice breaker, recently came back into duty following a three-year, $90-million overhaul. The 399-foot icebreaker is capable of breaking through ice up to 21 feet thick.

Begich was instrumental in returning the Polar Star to service and continues to press the Administration to build a new class of polar icebreakers and return the Star’s sister ship Polar Sea to active service in the interim.  He sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to fulfilling the recommendations of the Coast Guard’s High Latitude Study on icebreaker needs.

“The United States is the world’s leading maritime nation and it’s time to step up our leadership in the Arctic,” Sen. Begich said.  “Other nations are busy building icebreakers but still call on the U.S. Coast Guard when they need help. The United States needs to reassert maritime leadership by committing to rebuild our icebreaking capabilities and boost our economy by putting our shipyards back to work.”

The U.S. Coast Guard mission includes rendering assistance to mariners and others regardless of how remote or harsh the environment. Once both vessels are free from the ice, the Polar Star will return to its main mission of resupplying the National Science Foundation station at McMurdo.

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