National Science Foundation
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star was released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority from search-and-rescue duties on January 7th, following confirmation that the Russian-flagged Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese-flagged Xue Long are free from the Antarctic ice. Polar Star will now direct its attention to breaking a channel to allow the resupply and refueling of United States Antarctic Program stations, the Coast Guard said in a press release.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is responding to a request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to assist the Russian-flagged Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese-flagged Xue Long, which are ice-bound in Antarctic waters about 850 nautical miles (978 statute miles) from McMurdo Station.
The Russian and Chinese governments have also requested assistance from the United States government.
The decision to divert the icebreaker from its primary mission of creating a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to allow for annual resupply and refueling of U.S. Antarctic Program stations was made in consultation with officials of the National Science Foundation (NSF), who are cautiously optimistic that the delays caused by the rescue mission will not have a severe impact on the Antarctic Program.
By leaving Sydney, where the vessel was carrying out a port call, two days early, the Polar Star is currently scheduled to break the trapped ships free and arrive in McMurdo approximately one week later than originally planned.
The Polar Star’s captain estimates that the ship needs approximately 10 days to render assistance to the ships (time to transit to the ships and additional time for breaking the ships free). The Polar Star will carry out the McMurdo break-in immediately after concluding the vessel-assistance mission.
This is the first time since 2006 that the Polar Star has made the Antarctic 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.
The Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Command Center received the AMSA request Thursday evening, Jan. 3, after AMSA evaluated the situation and determined there is sufficient concern that the Russian and Chinese vessels may not be able to free themselves from the ice.
AMSA has been coordinating rescue operations since the Akademik Shokalskiy was first trapped in the ice on Dec. 24. The Polar Star left its homeport of Seattle in early December en route to Antarctica to carry out its mission in support of the USAP.