NSF Finds an Icebreaker to Reach McMurdo

Steve Royce

After 2 months of negotiations, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has struck a deal with a Russian shipping company to charter a heavy-duty icebreaker to clear a path this winter to the largest U.S. scientific base in the Antarctic.

The icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk (above), operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company, led the break-in and resupply of McMurdo Station last year after the Swedish government ended a long-standing agreement to lease its icebreaker, the Oden. In May, Murmansk informed NSF that the Ignatyuk would not be available for the 2012-13 season, due to concerns about the ship's ability to operate safely in the Antarctic pack ice. But on 3 July, NSF announced that it had reached an agreement with Murmansk to charter the Ignatyuk for the coming season after all.

"The situation for getting into McMurdo station is a very dynamic one," says Kelly Falkner, acting director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs (OPP). "[The ice] goes through cycles." In some years—including the past two—an icebreaker passing through the Ross Sea and into McMurdo Sound encounters primarily "first-year ice," which is less stiff than multiyear ice and easier for icebreakers to clear. But for most of the previous decade, the Ross Sea had been choked with multiyear ice after a giant chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf broke off. The Ignatyuk, although smaller and less powerful than the Oden, is fully capable of handling first-year ice conditions, says Falkner. "But it wouldn't be the ideal choice for a multiyear ice situation."

Although the coming year is also looking like a first-year ice scenario, Falkner said the Ignatyuk's operators had expressed concerns about the possibility that a storm might move ice around. To allay those concerns, NSF hopes to locate additional vessels in the region who would be in a position to assist at the time, should the need arise. "Statistically, the need is limited," she says. "It's more of a risk mitigation insurance policy."

No U.S. polar icebreakers are currently available to support McMurdo, the logistics hub for U.S. operations on the southern continent. The Polar Star, a heavy-duty icebreaker operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, has been undergoing extensive renovations and is slated to be operational by the 2013-14 season.

NSF has been stockpiling fuel at McMurdo, and the station has enough fuel to continue operations, albeit at a reduced level, through February 2014, Falkner says. "We're in reasonable shape," she says. The supply ship arrives at the end of the scientific season, in late January or early February, when there is a minimum of ice, so there is currently plenty of fuel on hand at the station for operations to continue as normal for the 2012-13 season. But the lack of supply would have hampered researchers coming in for the 2013-14 season.

"It's not a 1-year problem," Falkner says. NSF was prepared to continue to support time-urgent science using only supply planes, if necessary, she adds.

The deal comes as a relief to Antarctic researchers transporting large pieces of scientific equipment to the continent. John Priscu, a microbiologist at Montana State University, Bozeman, is leading an equipment-intense effort to drill into the subglacial Whillans Ice Stream this Antarctic summer. "Much of the WISSARD [Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling] drill and associated platforms must be transported from the U.S. to McMurdo this year," Priscu says. Without an icebreaker to clear a path for the cargo ship to haul in the material, Priscu says, "We were worried that we would be monopolizing all heavy-lift aircraft. We estimated that it would take around 20 flights."