3 September 2014, by Dan Wolfe:
You would think traveling way north you wouldn’t run into anyone. Well, you’re wrong. Just this afternoon we were within sight of two other Russian ships. Who else in the world has icebreakers and why? As you can imagine, the countries that boarder the Arctic or with coastal waters that freeze might need an icebreaker to keep their ports open and ocean going vessels moving in and out. This is the commercial side. Then there are the countries who may want an icebreaker to do some research or escort research and supply ships. Icebreakers are used in both the Arctic and Antarctic. I am only familiar with the U.S. icebreakers and just a few from other countries. When I was in the Coast Guard, we had 8 icebreakers that were transferred from the Navy after WWII: Northwind, Southwind, Eastwind, Westwind, Burton Island, Staten Island, Edisto, and Glacier. These icebreakers were called upon to resupply the U.S. stations in Antarctica as part of “Operation Deep Freeze.” They also provided support along our coasts and in other cold regions the U.S. has interests. In the late 70’s early 80’s, the U.S. commissioned two new icebreakers two replace its aging fleet. The newest icebreaker is the Healy, designed especially for scientific research. The United States now has only 3 icebreakers (Polar Sea, Polar Star, and Healy) and one of those is out of commission.
From the chart below, you can see which countries have icebreakers, how many they have, and how powerful (represented by the color coding in the key in the bottom right) they are. As might be expected, Russia has the most icebreakers considering they have probably the largest region boarding the Arctic Ocean, north of Siberia. I assume some of the nations who support one or two icebreakers do so because they are part of the Antarctic Treaty and may have a remote station somewhere on the continent. As you have probably heard in the news, countries with icebreakers help each other out and will even hire out to do work for another country whose icebreaker(s) maybe be needed elsewhere. In an emergency like anywhere in the ocean the closest ship will offer assistance. In the case of the Antarctic and Arctic it has to be an icebreaker for most of cases.
Back to our situation and who else might be in the area. Right now from what I’ve been told there are 5 icebreakers and 2 research ships in the Arctic besides the Oden: Russia 2 (Yamal and Federov), Canada 2 (Terry Fox and Louis St Laurent), Germany 1 (Polarstern), China 1 (Xue Lon), and Japan 1 (Mirai). Remember that is it summer, at least as far as the calendar says. Now the Arctic is a big place, but two of those have been within visual range of us today. The Yamal is a nuclear icebreaker, very powerful, and escorting the research ship Federov. Word is the Polarstern is very near the North Pole and having problems getting around due to the heavy ice conditions. The Terry Fox and the St Laurent are working in tandem. One of my colleges is on board the Miria, a Japanese research ship, maintaining more atmospheric instrumentation from ESRL’s Physical Science Division. The Mirai will be positioning itself as far north as the ice will allow in the Chukchi Sea for 20 days, but was diverted to Barrow because of a medical emergency (scientist with a kidney stone).