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Fact Sheet

Icebreakers in Support of Science

February 7, 2005

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Icebreakers, whether serving as oceanographic laboratories, conveying inspectors to monitor compliance with environmental treaties or creating seaways to transport vital supplies to Antarctic research stations, play a key role in the complex infrastructure that supports NSF-funded research in the polar regions.

Through a longstanding relationship with NSF and its Office of Polar Programs (OPP), the U.S. Coast Guard operates a fleet of three icebreakers in Arctic and Antarctic waters that support NSF’s scientific missions. NSF, along with other agencies, has reimbursed the Coast Guard for its icebreaking services.

The president's fiscal 2006 budget transfers $48 million from the Coast Guard to NSF to fund the operation and maintenance of the nation's three polar icebreakers. The Coast Guard will continue to operate and maintain the vessels for NSF, the primary customer for the icebreakers. The Administration's budget plan indicates that Department of Homeland Security's priorities make it unlikely the Coast Guard could fund refurbishment or replacement of the icebreakers in future years, which in turn threatens the programs that depend on the ships' services.  While the Coast Guard will initially continue to operate and maintain the ships, NSF will have flexibility to pursue alternatives to current operations.  The likely outcome will be continued services at a lower cost and more directly tailored to the needs of the research community.

Polar-Class Icebreakers

Usually, the Coast Guard's two polar-class icebreakers, Polar Star and Polar Sea, are assigned primarily to Antarctic operations, while the Coast Guard cutter, Healy, primarily supports Arctic research.

 Polar Star and Polar Sea are among the world's most robust conventionally powered icebreakers.  Built in the 1970s, the ships are designed to move continuously through six feet of ice at a speed of 3 knots (3.4 mph).  The reinforced hull of each vessel is shaped to ride up on the ice, which then breaks under the ship's weight. Only a handful of ships worldwide are capable of conducting such unrestricted high-latitude operations.

All that icebreaking muscle is used to accomplish a primary mission: to annually create a channel through miles of sea ice to allow a fuel tanker and cargo ship to bring critical supplies to McMurdo Station, NSF's logistics hub in Antarctica.  Although U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard aircraft ferry supplies and cargo to McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the austral summer--from October to February--the planes deliver only a tiny fraction of the cargo and fuel needed to keep the stations operating year-round.

Typically, each ship can carry two Coast Guard helicopters, which are used during polar deployments for science, and logistics support.  The ships are equipped to function as scientific platforms with five internal laboratories and accommodations for as many as 35 scientists and technicians. They also can accommodate an additional seven portable science laboratories on deck.  Real-time satellite images processed on board aid in ice navigation, science planning and weather forecasting.

Because the Polar Sea is dry docked for long-term maintenance this year, NSF's Office of Polar Programs chartered the Russian icebreaker, Krasin, to assist in its Antarctic operations.

For more information on Polar Sea, see:
For more information on Polar Star, see:


Commissioned in 2000, the newest icebreaker in the fleet, Coast Guard Cutter, Healy, conducts a wide range of research activities.  Although it has assisted in breaking the channel into McMurdo Station, its primary mission is supporting Arctic science.  Healy is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -45 degrees Celsius (-50 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Healy has over 5,000 square-feet of science laboratories and science support rooms, as well as covered staging areas and exterior space on deck to carry out science research.  The ship accommodates up to 50 scientists, along with seven labs, two climate-controlled chambers, electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, refrigerated space, a freezer and three cargo holds that provide up to 20,000 cubic feet of storage.

The ship includes the latest in polar research equipment and systems, integrated by a modular science data network: a bottom-mapping sonar system; a depth-sounding and sub-bottom profiler; a conductivity-depth-temperature (CTD) acquisition and analysis system; an acoustic Doppler current profiler; a rosette water sampling system; a continuous-flow, seawater sampling system; a jumbo-piston coring system; and a bow tower for clean air experiments are among the Healy's capabilities.

In 2001, scientists on a cruise to the Arctic Ocean found evidence that the Gakkel Ridge, the world's slowest spreading mid-ocean ridge, may be volcanically active, and that conditions in a field of undersea vents, known as "black smokers," could support previously unknown species of marine life.  Scientists on the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge Expedition (AMORE) said they were able to map the ridge in great detail from the Healy because the vessel was much quieter than expected when breaking ice .

For more information on Healy, see: 

OPP runs the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.  In its capacity as chair of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), NSF, through OPP, also acts as the lead agency for implementing Arctic research policies.




The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2022 budget of $8.8 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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