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

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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.

3. The American icebreaker Healy can travel through 4.5 feet of ice at a speed of 3 knots. At least that's the top speed and maximum thickness for the Healy. For more specific operations (ramming, backing), the ship can take on ice 8 feet thick. Russia's more powerful nuclear icebreakers, like the NS 50 Let Pobedy can take on 9 feet of ice!

4. The Healy and Renda, are being aided by a video-capable drone. In addition to the traditional tools of navigation, the BP Oil Spill Response team lent a tiny 2.5-pound drone to the Nome resupply effort to help them get a drone's eye view of the task ahead of them. The Aeryon Scout UAV helps the team identify ridges of thicker ice and route around them.



5. The first icebreaking ships appeared on the Delaware River in the US and the Elbe River in Germany in the 1840s. The first ship designed to operate in icy conditions, City Ice Boat No. 1, was built in Philadelphia in 1837. It was eventually converted into a barge in the early 1900s. Dedicated icebreakers appeared in St. Petersburg and Hamburg in the 1870s, and oceangoing vessels by the turn of that century. Icebreakers rounded into their current shape during the 1970s as new propulsion systems (nuclear powered in Russia, diesel electric in other countries) increased the power and range of the boats. In recent years, a new propulsion system called the "azimuth thruster pod" has provided new flexibility with its ability to move in 360 degrees.

6. The first dedicated US icebreaker, the Northland, was eventually sold to the Israeli 'underground,' and used to run Jewish immigrants to Palestine past a British blockade. Though a "disappointment" as an icebreaker, the ship went on to a very strange afterlife in the Middle East. (That's her below, after they removed the masts that provided her auxiliary power.) The Coast Guard history of this ship will be the basis for my next novel, a maritime adaptation of The Red Violin:

[The Northland] was decommissioned in 1946 and sold to the Israeli "underground." After conversion work she was renamed The Jewish State and ran the British blockade of Palestine transporting Jewish immigrants. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Northland, now renamed Matzpen, became the first warship of the new Israeli Navy. She saw action against Egyptian forces that attacked Israel by sea; shelled Tira and Tyre and then served as a training ship, then a tender to the Israeli motor torpedo boat fleet, and finished her career as an accommodations ship for the port command at Haifa. She was decommissioned from the Israeli Navy in February, 1962 and sold for scrap.

northland_2.jpg

7. A 2007 National Academies study found that US icebreaking capabilities were "at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south." That's because two of the United States' three polar icebreakers have exceeded their design lifetimes. The Polar Star and Polar Sea began operation in the late 1970s and have experienced some problems in recent years. They require too much maintenance and their systems are getting old. No relief is on the horizon for at least several years.

Images: United States Coast Guard.

2. Many Russian icebreakers are powered by nuclear reactors.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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