Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star returned to Seattle’s homeport on Saturday after a northern cruise that marked the first time since 1982 that a U.S. government ship ventured into the winter Arctic.
The crew encountered thick, changing sea ice, darkness during the day and wind chill that sank to 50 degrees below zero. On December 25, the Polar Star reached a latitude of 72 degrees, which was further north than any other US government ship except a winter submarine.
The mission was a serious test of the skills of the 45-year-old, 399 foot long Pole Star. One of the challenges was generating enough heat to keep the ship warm.
Captain Bill Woityra, the ship’s commander, said “the resilience of the crew is adamant … we have achieved everything we set out to do and more.”
The Polar Star is one of two US icebreakers and the only one that has been classified as “heavy”. It can break ice up to 21 feet thick. The ship left Seattle in early December and sailed through the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, and then through the thick ice of the Chukchi Sea.
It was a big change from the usual Polar Star mission. The Pole Star usually travels south to support the summer supply of McMurdo Station on Ross Island near the Antarctic continent. In August, the 134 full-time crew was preparing for their traditional role.
However, this mission was sunk by the National Science Foundation as the coronavirus pandemic resulted in research being scaled back and restrictions put in place to reduce the risk of the virus reaching Antarctica. In September, the Coast Guard decided to send the Pole Star north.
The ship has had breakdowns and maintenance issues in recent years, including a fire in 2019 that damaged a ship’s incinerator and repaired a leaky shaft with the help of a diver. During this fall-winter cruise, despite the extreme weather, the ship did not have any major breakdowns or accidents, according to Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier of the Coast Guard’s Public Affairs.
“There was no time lost due to malfunctions,” said Strohmaier.
In the Chukchi Sea, the Polarstern repeatedly rammed through a heavy ice sheet. The crew members had many descriptions for the listening experience of this noisy passage and compared the noises to “the screeching and popping of an eternal car accident, a roaring elephant, a freight train or a journey through concrete,” according to a communication from Sergeant 1st Class Cynthia Oldham and Sergeant 2nd Class Tedd Meinersman.
They wrote that the ice experienced by the crew during the Antarctic summer is warmer and softer, and makes less noise when squeezed and squeezed by the hull.
The Polar Star drove north with researchers from a cold-weather lab from the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Washington, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
The researchers deployed buoys that carry information about ice floes, and the crew supported the research to better understand the hydrology of the Chukchi Sea.
During the voyage, the Polar Star and a Russian plane patrolled part of the two nations’ maritime border in the Bering Sea in mid-January. The patrol included communication exercises demonstrating the importance of a working relationship in an area where the two nations have agreements on combined search and rescue and illegal fishing operations, said Capt. Jason Brennell, chief of enforcement for the 17th District Coast guard.
Pole Star commander Woityra said he expected the Coast Guard to travel to the Arctic more frequently and at different seasons in the future.
“Polar Star’s winter deployment in the Arctic has helped to better understand and prepare for the challenges of operating in such a harsh and unforgiving environment,” Woityra said in a statement released by the Coast Guard.