A reminder of U.S. vulnerability in the polar seas?
Glaciers are slipping away everywhere. It was tough to see this one go.
I’m talking about a ship, not an actual river of ice. This morning I watched the retired Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier cast off on what is likely to be its final voyage, from a Vallejo dry dock to a scrapyard in Brownsville, Texas. It seemed like a poignant moment, given the decline of the U.S. icebreaker fleet. Just as Arctic seas are opening up to unprecedented shipping activity, the Coast Guard is left with just one icebreaker in working order. Icebreakers are important research platforms and could play a vital role in responding to oil spills from offshore drilling in far northern waters.
Ben Koether sees it as more than poignant. “It’s a tragedy and a crisis,” he told me by phone from Connecticut. “It’s just ludicrous.” Koether is an electronics executive who was the Glacier’s navigator for two Antarctic voyages, in 1959 and 1962. In its heyday, the ship participated in annual re-supply missions to Antarctic bases and was used as a platform for oceanographic research in polar waters. Launched in 1954, the Glacier was decommissioned more than 20 years ago and is well beyond seeing active service. But Koether has been leading an effort to save the Glacier from the blowtorch and turn it into a floating museum of oceanography.
Seeing the ship’s 300-foot rusting form depart ADR’s Mare Island shipyard between two tugs, one might reasonably conclude that the battle has been lost. “Absolutely not,” says Koether, who says the dismantling contractor has agreed in principle to swap the Glacier for another one in the U.S. reserve fleet, managed by the federal Maritime Administration (MARAD), but MARAD has yet to approve the deal.
Koether says the Glacier’s design is “unequaled even today.” Built originally for the Navy, the Glacier had a “heeling” system that could free it from heavy ice by rapidly pumping 140,000 gallons of water from side-to-side. Her power came from giant diesel engines and twin 17-foot propellers and Koether says she was built more stoutly than subsequent breakers in the fleet, with thicker steel and more ribbing.
As for beefing up the U.S. polar fleet, prospects appear dim, though the Coast Guard has asked for funding to build at least one more icebreaker. “As the ice melts, you need more icebreakers instead of less,” says Koether, noting that the Russians have more than a dozen in the works, some nuclear-powered.