Icebreaker Deal to Keep Antarctic Research Afloat

Antarctic researchers funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) may need to throw on another blanket at night to ward off the chill. But Thursday's agreement to lease a Russian icebreaker to help resupply NSF's logistics hub at McMurdo Station should otherwise allow the agency to avoid any major curtailments to its Antarctic research schedule for the 2011-12 winter season.

The Vladimir Ignatyuk, operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company, has been hired to clear a path through the ice that will allow fuel and cargo ships to deliver the supplies needed to operate McMurdo and a second station at the South Pole. The largest component by far is the 5 million gallons of diesel fuel used to run the stations and fly the planes that ferry researchers to various sites on the frozen continent. "It's a big relief," says Karl Erb, head of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, who negotiated the deal after Sweden told U.S. officials last month that it was pulling out of a long-standing arrangement to make available Oden, its polar research icebreaker.

NSF will pay approximately $8 million this year to use the Ignatyuk, built by Canada in 1983 and designed to punch out a path for other vessels. The icebreaker will be coming off of a similar escort mission to the Indian Antarctic station and is expected to arrive at McMurdo Station around 19 January, says Erb. "That's a bit later than normal, but it shouldn't pose any problems."

The swap isn't ideal for scientists. Unlike Oden, Ignatyuk won't be able to do any research as it sails into and from McMurdo Sound. That leaves researchers to fend for themselves in rescheduling cruises once planned on Oden.

Swedish researchers are especially angry at their government's decision to bring Oden back to Sweden to provide additional domestic icebreaking capacity in case of a harsh winter, accusing it of discounting the value of science to the country. And they see a deal struck this month with Finland to hire out Oden for the next 5 years to break ice in the Gulf of Bothnia as rubbing salt in the wound.

Finland will pay the Swedish government approximately €4 million to use Oden this winter, says Raimo Tapio, vice director general of the Finnish Transport Agency. It will be one of nine icebreakers contracted by the agency, which is responsible for maintaining adequate icebreaking capability. "In a harsh winter, we will need them all," says Tapio. "In a mild winter, we might need only two or three."

NSF's contract allows it to hire Ignatyuk for an additional two austral summers if it performs well this winter. That would provide NSF with a backup plan in case the Polar Star, a heavy-duty icebreaker operated by the U.S. Coast Guard now undergoing extensive renovations, is not ready to resume work in the Antarctic in 2013-14. The fleet of three U.S. polar icebreakers hasn't been able to get the job done in Antarctica for nearly a decade.

Erb says the difficulty that NSF faced in lining up a vessel to replace Oden has highlighted the need to build up a reserve fuel supply. NSF hopes to accomplish that goal, Erb says, by bringing more fuel than usual this winter to McMurdo and by conserving what's on hand. "It's too early to say what [conservation] will mean," says Erb. "It could be as simple as lowering the thermostat at night. But I want to alert researchers about the importance of using less fuel, for the sake of greater sustainability."