7 Things You Should Know About (Nuclear-Powered, Drone-Guided) Icebreakers

The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy finished clearing a path to Nome, Alaska for a Russian fuel tanker this week, but their trip is far from the only wild adventure these special ships have undertaken.

In the frozen arctic, the city of Nome, Alaska was in desperate need of help. A stormy Bering Sea had kept the city from receiving its full standard shipment of diesel fuel, which its residents burn to generate electricity and run their vehicles.

The town had enough fuel to last through March, but the sea on which Nome perches stays frozen until midsummer; it seemed the city would have to fly in fuel.

So, in mid-December, as winter bore down on the great north, a Coast Guard icebreaker prepared to lead the Russian tanker Renda through the frozen sea to the 3,600 souls of Nome. Yesterday, the ships reached Nome and the long-awaited fuel transfer began. The Coast Guard photos (above) capture their arrival, as well as the preparation made on land to run hoses to the city's fuel storage locations.

The mission, which New Scientist deemed 'unprecedented,' was possible only because of the power of the icebreaker. This special class of ships is so interesting precisely because they are designed to do exactly what other ships cannot. The process of breaking up ice is startlingly simple conceptually.

"While significant engineering goes into designing an icebreaker, breaking ice is based on two simple principles: (1) a sledgehammer is better than a butter knife and (2) two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time," wrote the Coast Guard's head of Cutter Forces, Lt. Cmdr. Kristen Serumgard.

As easy as Serumgard makes it sound, icebreaking at the poles is a crazy technological adventure. Here are seven things you should know about the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, our country's newest icebreaker, and other ships of its ilk.

1. Icebreakers work by riding up on the ice and using the weight of the ship to break the ice.
I always thought icebreakers worked like a wedge, prying apart the ice, but that's not actually true. The icebreakers have a rounded bow, unlike the sharper ones found on traditional ships, that allows them to ride up onto the ice. "As the bow raises up and the stern sinks below the water," the Coast Guard's Serumgard explains, "the force of buoyancy acting on the submerged portion of the stern... creates a lever-like action bringing Healy's 16,000 tons down onto the ice and breaking it." Then, the Healy moves through the broken ice, pushing it aside in a swatch two or three times as wide as the ship.Since the nuclear-powered Lenin icebreaker went into operation in 1959, nine other Russian ships have launched with nuclear reactors that generate steam for their operations. The ships only have to refuel once every four years, which is a nice advantage in the Arctic, where supply lines can easily be severed by storms or ice. They are also very powerful. On the downside, they have to carry a nuclear reactor on board the ship.

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