Seattle to play central role in Arctic security as old icebreakers finally replaced

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At the bottom of the world, the U.S. Coast Guard's heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, works like a giant sledge hammer.

Powerful engines push the ship up on the ice so it can crash down and smash it, creating a passage for supply ships to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica.

The Seattle-based ship is the only operating heavy icebreaker in the American fleet, and at 43 years old, it often has big problems.

Earlier this year, the mission had four emergencies, three fires in old systems and one flood.

It is often kept going because of the creative heroics of its crew.

Capt. Gregory Stanclik calls it "MacGyverism."

Now, after years of discussion, the government is moving ahead with building a new icebreaker, which will be also based in Seattle.

In April, the Coast Guard and Navy signed a contract with a Mississippi shipyard to build a new Polar Security Cutter.

If the government exercises an option for two more ships, three Polar Security Cutters would cost $1.9 billion.

It's part of an emerging strategy to secure the Arctic, where melting ice from climate change is opening new shipping lanes.

"The Arctic is opening up, the receding sea ice is creating an environment where there's water where there never used to be," said Cmdr. William Woityra, the executive officer on the Polar Star.

Unlike current icebreakers, the new one will be built with room for weapons.

"The new security cutter is not named that without reason," said University of Washington lecturer Scott L. Montgomery, who studies the Arctic.

Climate change means a new race to control the Arctic, its oil and gas resources and its shipping routes.

There's the Northeast Passage near Russia and the Northwest Passage by Canada and Alaska.

By the mid-century, ice could melt enough for a trans-polar route right through the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

"It is now being forecast that there is one season a year when there is no ice in the Arctic whatsoever," Montgomery said.

With more ships in the far north, the U.S. will need to patrol its waters off Northern Alaska.

Right now, the only other operating American icebreaker is the Healy, a medium icebreaker that works in the Arctic.

When it's not there, Montgomery said U.S. Arctic waters are unmonitored for things like search and rescue.

"We're not there in any permanent or consistent way, you can't be with one ship," Montgomery said.

Other Arctic nations have multiple icebreakers.

The new Polar Security Cutters will be based in Seattle.

The first one is due in 2024.

"Seattle is the jumping off point to the Arctic," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Cantwell calls plans for three new heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers a "start."

"We want to make sure that U.S. vessels have the capacity to move through the Arctic," Cantwell said.

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