The Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, the nation’s sole heavy icebreaker, is making its way north for the ship’s first winter Arctic deployment since 1982.
When Polar Star’s annual resupply mission at McMurdo Station in Antarctica was cancelled due to COVID safety precautions at the station, Coast Guard leaders seized the opportunity to coordinate a future-focused Arctic deployment.
In addition to projecting sovereign Arctic presence, the heavy icebreaker’s unusual, far north winter patrol is gathering experience and honing ice navigation proficiency to fortify the country’s future generation of Arctic sailors and mission leaders.
Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray noted, “In addition to executing the missions of today, Polar Star is training the next generation of icebreaker sailors who will carry on this important mission into the future.”
As human activity and international interest in the Polar Regions expand, the Coast Guard must be ready to protect U.S. national security, environmental and economic interests through capable ice breaking to allow access to the Polar Regions throughout the year.
While the ship charged with aiding these goals will celebrate 45 years of service this patrol, a majority of its crew is far younger.
“Most of the crew who keep this ship operating were born more than a decade after Polar Star’s first voyage,” said Capt. Bill Woityra, the cutter’s commanding officer. “This deployment will propel our future Arctic abilities by providing junior members critical familiarity in the harsh, remote winter Arctic environment.”
Developing junior Coast Guard members with Arctic experience now will prove essential in the coming years when the planned construction of six new polar icebreakers is complete.
Ensigns Madeline Colwell and Valerie Hines, who graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy this past spring, are temporarily assigned to Polar Star from the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a medium ice breaker also homeported in Seattle.
The junior officers reported to Healy after graduation, determined to pursue their interest in ice science and polar navigation. After the Healy sustained a mission-limiting casualty to a propulsion motor in August, the two new officers joined the Polar Star crew to gain experience and earn their ice pilot qualifications while the Healy is repaired.
The goal for both Colwell and Hines is to take Arctic familiarity back to Healy to continue their service well-prepared to mentor the next class of junior officers and ice pilots.
The success of the country’s future Arctic operations falls not only to motivated junior Coast Guard members, but also relies on international and domestic collaboration to support the development of future polar sailors.
Working closely with allies and agency partners is critical to strengthening a safe, prosperous and cooperative future for maritime Arctic activity.
Also heading into the Arctic aboard Polar Star are partner-agency researchers and scientists, sailors from The Royal Navy and midshipmen from U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
The range of specialties, interests and abilities of the diverse team sailing north will facilitate providing expertise to the crew necessary to grow the nation’s overall development of Arctic navigators.
As part of the collaboration team, Marine Science Officer Lt. Lydia Ames, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, serves as a science liaison to the Coast Guard’s two polar icebreakers – Polar Star and Healy.
Healy is the Coast Guard’s primary Arctic research ship, which operates solely in the Arctic summer months. Ames said this winter deployment north is a huge opportunity and great step to better understanding the region.
Partnering with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the ship is carrying more than 100 expendable oceanographic data collection sensors to use in the icy waters when the Polar Star transits above the Arctic Circle.
“There is a huge void of data for the Arctic – especially from the winter,” said Ames. “Our goal this patrol is to facilitate the gathering of science to grow understanding of the area.”
In addition to discovering data to better equip future Arctic sailors, Ames is also working to earn her deck watch officer and ice pilot qualifications to further develop her Arctic skillset for continued research and inter-agency partnership.
To support the command with safe ice navigation during the patrol and aide in the training of future ice pilots, physical scientist and sea ice expert Evan Neuwirth from the U.S. National Ice Center in Washington D.C., will analyze and forecast Arctic ice conditions.
Neuwirth’s weather evaluations, sea ice analysis, and forecasts will best inform the command’s decisions regarding safe ice navigation and ice training opportunities.
While Neuwirth’s role is more immediate, Shalane Regan, a mechanical engineer and researcher with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in Connecticut, is thinking ahead.
Regan will carefully observe and detail how the crew operates and responds to winter conditions above the Arctic Circle.
Scientists and engineers who work at the Coast Guard RDC conduct research and development in support of major Coast Guard missions. The RDC team already know crews working in the remote Arctic region face tremendous challenges such as reduced communications and limited maritime domain awareness. Regan is working to discover other challenges an Arctic winter presents so her team can work to mitigate them going forward.
Discovering more about the Polar Regions and how to best navigate them is a global endeavor. Also sailing aboard Polar Star are two international officers from The Royal Navy.
Lt. Jacob Stein, from Her Majesty’s Ship Protector, an ice patrol ship based in England, said in addition to gaining ice pilot training, he aims to observe and learn how the U.S. Coast Guard navigates the dark, frozen environment.
HMS Protector’s crew typically works in support of the British Antarctic Survey, enforcing conservation of polar marine resources in the Antarctic region.
Because the allied sea services have similar mission sets, Stein said he will be looking for operational similarities as well as differences between how his crew and the U.S. Coast Guard crew operate. Stein hopes to use the Arctic experience to best support and maintain HMS Protector’s polar capabilities going forward.
The Coast Guard’s leadership role in providing a continued Arctic presence and growth of resources and partnerships is essential to national security, maritime domain awareness, freedom of navigation, U.S. sovereign interests and scientific research.
Working alongside allies and partners this patrol, with laser-focus on the development of our next generation of Arctic sailors, Polar Star will advance the Coast Guard’s ability to protect American citizens and interests in Arctic waters today and into the future.