SEATTLE - After a $62 million overhaul, the Coast Guard will have its third icebeaker back in service in 2013, filling a critical need as the fleet takes on new responsibilities, the commandant of the service said Wednesday.
Adm. Thad Allen said that within weeks, the icebreaker Polar Star will travel the few hundred yards between its berth at Seattle's Coast Guard station to Todd Pacific Shipyards, where it will undergo the 2½-year restoration.
The work is aimed at keeping the ship operational for another seven or eight years. Before then, Allen said, the country needs to decide whether to build a new generation of icebreakers capable of handling expanded missions and situations well into mid-century.
In Arctic and Antarctic waters, "the only surface presence this country has are the three icebreakers operated by the Coast Guard," Allen said.
The 399-foot Polar Star, which entered service in 1976, has been tied up here since 2005, when the Coast Guard determined it would cost too much to keep operating it. That left just two functional icebreakers - the identical Polar Sea, and the newer, smaller Healy. All three ships are based in Seattle.
When the two Polar class ships were built in the early 1970s, their mission was to open sea routes to Antarctic and other ice-clogged bases and do science on the side.
Today, Allen said, icebreakers are needed for scientific research, maritime safety, search and rescue, environmental protection, national security and other missions, including the critical requirement of just being in the Arctic as Russia and other nations seek to expand their ocean claims.
The need will only increase, he told a news conference and separate briefing aboard the ship. It's necessary to know how climate change will affect fish stocks and other marine and surface life, and what more open water will mean for shipping, oil and gas development and the potential exploitation of ice-free areas.
"This has become an area of extreme focus," he said. "And not to mention the potential for extended claims on the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit."
The Healy, he added, currently in dry-dock here, is due to be off Alaska's North Slope this spring, and one of its missions will be to collect data that potentially could bolster U.S. claims beyond its existing economic zone.
Allen sidestepped a question on whether he believes in climate change, though he said "certain things are undeniable," including a smaller ice cap and changes in ocean temperature and chemistry.
"I'm not a scientist, I'm a sailor, and the most politically correct way for me to say this is I'm an agnostic to the science," he said.