U.S. and Russian icebreakers have cleared a path through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to allow the annual resupply of McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation’s logistics hub in Antarctica. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star and the Russian icebreaker Krasin escorted the U.S. Navy fuel tanker USNS Paul Buck to the ice pier at McMurdo Station in late January to unload its cargo. The tanker unloaded about eight million gallons of fuel in 48 hours. The Paul Buck left McMurdo on Jan. 31.
The cargo vessel American Tern arrived at McMurdo on Feb. 3, local time (U.S. Stations in Antarctica keep New Zealand time). The ship is currently unloading and is expected to leave McMurdo on Feb. 11.
Although U.S. Air Force and New York Air National Guard cargo flights from New Zealand operate on a regular schedule during the annual Antarctic research season (October through February), planes alone aren’t able to carry enough supplies to keep the nation’s Antarctic research program running.
Each year, a channel must be broken through the ice that forms on McMurdo Sound to allow access for the tanker and cargo ship.
This year’s icebreaking operations were more challenging for two reasons: the extent of the sea ice was much greater than in previous years, and only one Coast Guard icebreaker was available to perform the mission.
The sea ice normally extends roughly 10 nautical miles from McMurdo Station. This year, the ice edge was more than 80 nautical miles from the station.
Further complicating the operation, the Polar Star’s sister ship, Polar Sea, is drydocked for longterm repairs.
NSF chartered the Krasin from the Far East Shipping Co., a Russian firm. A search by officials in NSF’s Office of Polar Programs revealed that Krasin was the only qualified ship available on the world market to assist the Polar Star.