ALAMEDA–The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is responding to a Jan. 3 request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to assist the Russian-Flagged Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese-Flagged Xue Long that are reportedly ice-bound in the Antarctic. The Russian and Chinese Governments have also requested assistance from the United States.
Coast Guard Pacific Area Command Center received the request Thursday evening from AMSA after they evaluated the situation and determined there is sufficient concern that the vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice. AMSA has been coordinating rescue operations since the Akademik Shokalskiy became beset with ice on Dec. 24. The Polar Star will cut short its planned stop in Sydney to support the AMSA’s request for assistance.
“The U.S. Coast Guard stands ready to respond to Australia’s request,” said Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander. “Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels. We are pleased to learn the passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy have been transported safely off the vessel. We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe.”
The Polar Star left its homeport of Seattle in early December on one of its primary missions, Operation Deep Freeze. The ship’s mission is to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program’s (USAP) McMurdo Station on Ross Island.
The National Science Foundation manages the USAP, which coordinates all science research and related logistics in Antarctica and on the Southern Ocean. McMurdo Station is the logistics hub for NSF’s research. The Polar Star will continue on this mission after conclusion of the vessel assistance mission.
This is the first time since 2006 that the Polar Star has made this journey. It has recently completed a three-year, $90 million overhaul, which will allow it to continue these important missions into the foreseeable future. For more than 50 years, Coast Guard icebreaker crews have deployed to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze. They will again assist by creating a navigable shipping lane through the layers of sea ice in McMurdo Sound permitting diesel fuel delivery and supplies needed to operate the U.S. McMurdo and South Pole stations throughout the coming year.
The Polar Star is the U.S. Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar ice breaker. The ship is 399 feet in length, its maximum speed is 18 knots, it is able to continuously break six feet of ice at three knots, and able to break 21 feet of ice backing and ramming. The Polar Star is specifically designed for open-water icebreaking with a reinforced hull and special icebreaking bow.