Bedfellows on a frozen continent: Science and the U.S. sea services

A ship's plaque bearing the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier commemorates one of many visits by the icebreaker to Palmer Station during the 1970s and 1980s.

A ship’s plaque bearing the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier commemorates one of many visits by the icebreaker to Palmer Station during the 1970s and 1980s. The plaque hangs in the station lounge with many others.

The nautical mementos that ring the walls of the Palmer Station lounge attest to a once robust partnership between Antarctic science and the U.S. sea services. A fading Coast Guard ensign bears the names of crewmembers who ventured ashore in 1984 from the now-decommissioned Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea. A ship’s plaque embossed with the coat of arms of the Coast Guard Cutter Glacier proudly commemorates one of the icebreaker’s many visits to Arthur Harbor in the 1970s and 1980s. (On the seal, Glacier sails in the foreground as a penguin on an ice floe holds a banner bearing the ship’s motto — “Follow Me” — in its beak.) And a yellowing photograph of the CGC Polar Star, the only American heavy icebreaker still in operation and sister ship to the decommissioned Polar Sea, hangs on the opposite wall.

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea left this Coast Guard ensign during a visit in 1984. The leaving during a port call of a ship's plaque or other memento is in keeping with old nautical tradition.

A small boat crew from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea left this Coast Guard ensign at Palmer during a visit in 1984. The “gifting” during a port call of a ship’s plaque or other memento is a nautical tradition.

These objects speak not just of the individual ships on which they arrived and of the crewmembers who left them, but of the U.S. sea services’ historical support of exploration and scientific discovery in Antarctica. Palmer Station, for example, owes its very existence to two Coast Guard cutters and a team of Navy Seabees.

To observe Veterans Day aboard Palmer Station in 2013 — as roughly 40 men and women did last week — is to both remember and celebrate the services’ past efforts here and to reflect on the much-diminished role that sailors and Coast Guardsmen play in Antarctica today.

In many ways, the military is no longer needed in Antarctica to the extent that it once was: Scientists, and the American taxpayers who fund the majority of those scientists’ research here, are served incredibly well by a capable contractor who manages the various stations and associated logistics. And the U.S. military does continue to provide some critical support for science on the Frozen Continent: The U.S. Air Force and New York Air National Guard now provide almost all airlift support for both McMurdo Station and the South Pole, for example.

But the fact remains: The end of the Cold War, combined with a lack of willingness in Congress to spend many millions of tax dollars on new icebreakers, has reduced the sea services’ financial and logistical investment in Antarctic science to a fraction of its former strength. While the decline of this vigorous partnership is a story worthy of books many times the length of this post, I have nevertheless endeavored to tell a bit of it here.

One thing is certain: The few men and women of the sea services who continue to stand the watch in the Antarctic today can take comfort in the fact that their duty is rooted in a long and storied history.

The Coast Guard Cutter Westwind at anchor in Arthur Harbor in winter 1967, after arriving on January 8 with a team of Navy Seabees. After transferring the team and several tons of gear ashore, the Westwind stayed on station as construction began on Palmer Station. Photo from the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

The Coast Guard Cutter Westwind at anchor in Arthur Harbor in winter 1967, after arriving on January 8 with a team of Navy Seabees. After transferring the team and several tons of gear ashore, the Westwind stayed on station as construction began on Palmer Station. National Science Foundation photo by W. Austin, from May/June 1967 edition of the Antarctic Journal, via the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

From the beginning, the U.S. sea services — the Navy and later, too, the Coast Guard — figured prominently in the history of American exploration and scientific discovery on the Frozen Continent. Many of the earliest American explorers to sail upon the Southern Ocean or travel across Antarctica were Naval officers: Men like Charles Wilkes and Richard E. Byrd earned themselves revered places in the annals of U.S. exploring history alongside civilian mariners like Nathaniel Palmer.

Navy Seabees from

Using special “jet set” explosives, Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 6 conduct underwater blasting in January 1967 to excavate a trench for Palmer Station’s seawater intake. Official Coast Guard photo from the Antarctic Journal, via the Palmer Station history pages at palmerstation.com.

While the terms of the Antarctic Treaty prohibit “any measures of a military nature” south of 60°S latitude, the treaty does “not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.” It is under this second clause that the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard — and, today, the U.S. Air Force — have supported various U.S. scientific operations here.

The current McMurdo Station, the largest research facility in Antarctica and the logistics hub for most U.S. operations on the continent, was originally called Naval Air Facility McMurdo upon its establishment in 1956. (Long before the U.S. established its permanent presence at McMurdo, the British had occupied the site through the efforts of explorers James Clark Ross and, later, Robert Falcon Scott, both of whom were British naval officers.) And it was the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 6, with support from the USS Edisto and Coast Guard icebreakers Eastwind and Westwind, who constructed the first buildings and pier for Palmer Station in the late 1960s.

One need not read far into the first official Palmer Station operations report (full version of the document here) to understand how critical the Navy and Coast Guard support had been:

Pal_67report_acknowledgments

An except from the first official Palmer Station operations report, dated June 20, 1967. Link to the full report here.

The remainder of the 48-page report, and subsequent annual reports like it through the late 1980s, note the critical services the Navy and Coast Guard provided at Palmer Station with the U.S. icebreaker fleet. The Wind-class icebreakers, Glacier, and later the Polar Star and Polar Sea, were Palmer’s link to the rest of the world, serving as platforms for research at sea in addition to fulfilling resupply, construction, and personnel transport missions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, management, operation, and, finally, the resupply of Palmer Station by sea were gradually civilianized: The military personnel assigned to Palmer were replaced by civilian government contractors and Coast Guard icebreakers were supplanted by ice-strengthened civilian research vessels. (For at least a few years, a Navy corpsman continued to provide overwinter medical services at Palmer, even after the rest of the former Navy positions had been civilianized.)

The Polar Star and Polar Sea continued to provide icebreaking and resupply support at McMurdo until the mid-2000s, when an increasing number of equipment failures aboard the two aging cutters began to render them increasingly unreliable. Beginning in 2006-2007, the National Science Foundation began contracting a series of foreign icebreakers (the Swedish Oden and then the Russian Vladimir Ignatyuk) to perform the critical resupply escort mission. In 2011, when Sweden pulled its support of the Oden on short notice, the U.S. nearly missed the short window of good weather necessary to deliver critical fuel and supplies to McMurdo.

Today, the U.S. icebreaker fleet stands at its smallest size in nearly 75 years. (An office at Coast Guard Headquarters maintains this nation-by-nation chart of the world’s heavy icebreakers.) Only the Polar Star, which just completed a $90 million retrofit that will keep it in service for another decade, is capable of breaking ice into McMurdo Station.

Without the necessary support in Congress, the Coast Guard currently has no firm plans to begin building any new ships to replace it. (The Coast Guard’s only other polar icebreaker, the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy, is a lighter-duty ship designed primarily for scientific support in Arctic waters. And, while highly capable, the two Antarctic research vessels the National Science Foundation currently contracts from Edison Chouest Offshore are only ice-strengthened. This means the two ships, the Laurence M. Gould and Nathaniel B. Palmer, are not equipped to break even half of the 21 feet of ice thickness the Polar Star can handle.)

For five scientists and support personnel who were scheduled to leave Palmer Station last week aboard the Gould, the state of the U.S. icebreaker fleet became an issue of personal concern: Due to the persistent sea ice in the waters south and west of Anvers Island, the Gould was unable to get to the station to transfer inbound supplies or pick up the outbound passengers. This isn’t, of course, a matter of life or death: The station keeps plenty of extra food and fuel on hand for situations like this one. But the delay represents a very significant inconvenience for the unlucky few who were scheduled to head north.

Circumstances like the one in which these men and women found themselves are, to be sure, a normal cost of conducting research in this harsh place. But they are also the consequence of a decades-long shift in the way science is supported here. The current arrangement is precarious, yet financially advantageous for taxpayers. Scientists, too, have not generally suffered: Research funded by the U.S. Antarctic Program generates an incredible number of new scientific findings each year.

To observe Veterans Day at the end of the world is to be grateful for the service of the sailors, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen whose efforts over more than a century have allowed U.S. science to come this far. But it is also to wonder: Might a new U.S. icebreaker — and with it, the ability to access those parts of the Southern Ocean currently inaccessible — allow us to make even greater discoveries?

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