Only working US icebreaker catches fire on return from Antarctica

USCG icebreaker Polar Star suffered an electrical fire in February. Credit: USCG

The US is facing a potential shortfall in icebreaking capability after its only remaining vessel, the ageing Polar Star, suffered an electrical fire on 10 February.

The 43-year-old ship, the only functioning icebreaker remaining in the US fleet, completed a life-extension works in 2013, theoretically allowing it to operate until 2023. But its viability was called into question after a series of incidents during the vessel’s return from a resupply mission in Antarctica, which culminated in the fire, which broke out in the incinerator room. Its 150 crew were forced to battle the blaze for two hours, more than 10,000 miles from the Seattle drydock for which it was headed.

“It’s always a serious matter whenever a shipboard fire breaks out at sea, and it’s even more concerning when that ship is in one of the most remote places on Earth,” said a statement by Vice Adm. Linda Fagan. “The crew of the Polar Star did an outstanding job — their expert response and determination ensured the safety of everyone aboard.”

In the lead up to the fire, smoking and power outages were recorded from Polar Star’s electrical systems, a propeller shaft sprang a leak, and one of the vessel’s two drinking water evaporators malfunctioned. Electrical systems and insulation suffered further damage during the blaze, when firefighters were forced to use water to cool down the vessel’s exhaust pipes.

In response to the news, the US federal government allocated new funding for its icebreaking programme in mid-February, comprising $655m for the first new icebreaker and $20m for a subsequent ship. But in 2018, a report by the US’ Government Accountability Office stated that the timeline for new icebreakers was “not informed by a realistic assessment of shipbuilding activities, but rather driven by the potential gap in icebreaking capabilities once the Coast Guard’s only operating heavy polar icebreaker—the Polar Star —reaches the end of its service life.”

Due to enter service in 2023, when Polar Star’s service life is due to end, it will be the first time a heavy icebreaker has joined the US fleet for more than 20 years.

But as Seattle drydock begins repairs of the incinerator and various other faulty parts, concerns remain about Polar Star’s ability to survive the next four years until its eventual replacement.