Illustration by Stina Löfgren
Illustration by Stina Löfgren

With all due respect to its often indispensable qualities, the icebreaker is something of a maritime freak. Few would consider it an ideal of sea-going beauty, with its strange sawn-off bow, top-heavy superstructure and tendency to roll and slam. It backs and charges and crunches its way through heavy ice. Yet from the deck of a vessel trapped in the ice, awaiting rescue, it must be a wonderful sight. And without its help, operations in the Arctic would be impossible.

Americans lay claim to the first steam-powered icebreaker, Philadelphia’s City Ice Boat No. 1, built in 1837 to clear the harbor. But the first recorded Russian vessel was the converted tug Pilot, used by a merchant in 1864 to clear a passage across the frozen bay between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt. The first true sea-going icebreaker did not appear until the end of the 19th century. Built at Armstrong-Whitworth’s yard at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, in Britain, the Yermak was a bulbous 5,000 tonner with tall smokestacks and steam-reciprocating engines that delivered 10,000 horsepower. The British shipbuilders did an excellent job; the ship was still in service more than 60 years later.

By 1932, another icebreaker, the Sibiryakov, was just about able (having lost her propeller) to complete a transit of the Northern Sea Route in a single season. Stalin approved, and a few years later, the first of a class of Russian-built icebreakers -- still old-fashioned coal burners -- was named after the Soviet leader.

Arctic Sea Route

After World War II, the Soviet regime continued working to create an Arctic sea route and, in 1967, offered to open it as an international seaway. The USSR ordered a dozen powerful diesel-electric icebreakers from Finland, and set its own engineers the task of applying nuclear propulsion to this type of ship.

Today, a dozen countries operate icebreakers. Canada needs them in large numbers to cope with winter, not only in the Arctic but also in the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay. Scandinavians use them to keep Baltic ports clear.

The U.S. has strategic and scientific interests in both the Arctic and Antarctica, for which it has three polar-class vessels.

Still, no one disputes the predominance that Russia achieved by adapting nuclear propulsion to icebreaking. These vessels need a great deal of power and the ability sometimes to remain at sea for long periods without refueling -- both things that a nuclear reactor can deliver.

The Lenin, the world’s first nuclear surface ship (it just beat the American NS Savannah into service), was also the first to do really useful work. It could plough ahead at three knots through 1.5 meters (5 feet) of ice and, if necessary, smash through 3 to 4 meters. In its first five years, the Lenin steamed 50,000 miles -- “steamed” being the operative word, since its reactors heated water to provide steam for turbines that were connected to electric motors driving the propellers. Suddenly, year-round operations were feasible on at least part of the Northern Sea Route, and Soviet officials declared that, if required, this nuclear pioneer could reach the North Pole.

Crushing the Ice

What makes a successful icebreaker? One might think it would be a sharp, strengthened bow. A few vessels have embodied this “ice-cutting” feature, notably the slender clipper-bowed Fyodor Litke, launched in 1909.

Acquired by Russia at the beginning of World War I, the Fyodor Litke was, for 40 years, involved in every adventure the Soviet Arctic had to offer -- leading convoys, rescuing explorers, escorting warships and the shameful work of servicing the Siberian gulag.

But the truth is, most icebreakers are designed not to cut through ice but to break it from above, using the ship’s weight. The standard icebreaker profile, therefore, has a sawn-off bow, enabling it to ride up on the ice.

The rudder has to be especially strong and, as far as possible, protected from ice damage when going astern, because icebreakers often back up to clear water for another vessel or to break through a ridge. Propellers are shielded and strengthened. Modern icebreakers also are able to lubricate their own hulls by making underwater air bubbles and to roll and shake themselves clear of ice. Altogether, these are extremely complicated and expensive pieces of equipment.

Add a pair of nuclear reactors capable of delivering 75,000 horsepower through linked turbines and electric motors, and you have the Arktika, first in a class of immensely capable Russian ships. The Arktika was launched in 1975 and two years later became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole, where the mean thickness of the ice is 3 to 4 meters. This icebreaker once spent a year at sea without putting into port -- another advantage of atomic power -- and its reactors were not finally shut down until 2008.

Six Arktika-class vessels were eventually built. The last of them -- the Ural, later renamed 50 Let Pobedy -- was launched from the Baltic Yard at St. Petersburg in 1993, not long after the Communist system disintegrated and the funding for such ships dried up.

Recently, however, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has talked positively about “assessing the state of the fleet” and “our plans for the further development of the Northern Sea Route.”

Another significant development is the decision by Norilsk Nickel, the vast Russian mining and smelting combine, to operate its own fleet of icebreaking freighters. These are “double-acting ships,” which move forward normally until impeded by ice, then turn around and go happily backward.

U.S. Icebreakers

In the U.S., the Coast Guard has been lobbying Congress for funds to build new icebreakers -- or at least refurbish the old ones -- to strengthen the American presence in the Arctic. The Coast Guard now has just three heavy (non-nuclear) icebreakers. The Healy is a modern vessel devoted mainly to Arctic research, while the other two, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, have outlived the 30 years they were designed to survive.

In recent years, the U.S. has been stretched to find one or more powerful icebreakers to enable supply ships to reach the Antarctic scientific research station in McMurdo Sound. (On a couple of occasions, the Americans have had to ask the Russian icebreaker Krasin to help out.) A changing climate will put greater demands on the small U.S. polar fleet by opening up the Arctic to maritime transport, oil exploration and tourism. The U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining its freedom of navigation in the Arctic -- especially for naval vessels -- and the ability to conduct independent scientific research.

Too little funding for icebreakers, the National Research Council warned in 2007, is putting the U.S. “at risk of being unable to support national interests in the north and the south.”

The NRC recommended that the U.S. “continue to project an active and influential presence in the Arctic” by building two new polar-class icebreakers to support the Healy. These would not be ready for service for another eight to 10 years, during which time the Polar Sea would need to be kept in working order, with the Polar Star in reserve.

With more maritime activity across the Arctic region, sooner or later fully ice-capable ships will be needed to respond to emergencies -- a serious oil spill, for example, or some problem involving one of the many cruise liners that now head north each summer to witness melting glaciers, stranded bears or migrating whales.

(David Fairhall, a former correspondent for the Guardian, writes extensively on maritime subjects. This is an excerpt from his new book, “Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters,” to be published Nov. 15 by Counterpoint Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: David Fairhall at david.fairhall@btinternet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net