Foreign Policy Blogs

Canadian Icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Heading South For Repairs

The flagship of Canada’s aging fleet of icebreakers suffered mechanical failure to its center propeller on September 19 and has been anchored off the coast of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut since September 27The 42-year old St-Laurent had been on a joint mission with the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to conduct bathymetric surveys and mapping of the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone. The collected data will be used to bolster Canada’s claims for expansion of the limits of its continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

Canadian Icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent Heading South For Repairs

CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent image credit: Canadian Coast Guard

According to CBC News, Brian LeBlanc explained that “upon further investigation with its autonomous underwater vehicle, it was determined there was a problem with the centre propeller. Unfortunately the on-site repairs were not successful, so we’re faced with bringing the ship through the Northwest Passage and down to the south where we can put it into dry dock to complete the repair.”

While Canadian officials claim that the gathering of seismic data had been completed before the breakdown occurred, scientists who were on board at the time stated that, “three-quarters of the way through the voyage we also encountered difficulty with the ship’s centre shaft propeller, and that prevented us from doing further seismic work.”

The St-Laurent, built in 1969, is one of two Heavy Arctic Icebreakers of the Canadian Coast Guard. In 1994 the St-Laurent, traveling together with the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, became the first North American surface vessel to reach the North Pole.

The recent sidelining of the St-Laurent is emblematic of the aging icebreaker fleet of both Canada and the U.S. The St-Laurent experienced repeated propeller malfunctions during her first 25 years of service until a set of stainless steel propellers was installed in 2000. Last year the ship underwent repair for damage to one of its propeller shaft bearings. An extensive retrofit pushed the original decommissioning date from 2000 to 2017, when the $720 million polar-class icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker, is scheduled to enter into service.

The U.S., meanwhile, has yet to commission a replacement for its heavy icebreakers Polar Star and Polar Sea which entered service in 1976 and 1977. The Polar Sea has been sidelined with a complete engine failure since 2010 and the Polar Star is undergoing a four-year, $57 million retrofit to extend its lifespan by up to 10 years. The 12-year-old Healy is the only currently operational heavy icebreaker, but its icebreaking capabilities are limited and do not allow it to venture deep into the Arctic during winter or to perform icebreaking duties of Antarctica. While the Polar Star and Sea, powered by a combination of diesel engines and gas turbines, are built to easily break 6 feet of ice the diesel-only-powered Healy can only break ice up to 4 1/2 feet

The icebreaking capabilities of the USCG are so limited that since 2007 the Swedish icebreaker Oden, has been leased to conduct the annual supply run to the American research outpost in Antarctica at McMurdo Station.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, co-sponsored a bill that would keep the Polar Sea in service until the refurbishment of the Polar Star is completed in 2013. The USCG has been reluctant to invest $22 million for the repair of the ship’s engines less than three years before its decommissioning date. Currently, the Polar Sea sits idle in dry dock in Seattle, WA and the USCG plans to decommission it by the end of the year. Begich and Cantwell argue that the U.S. cannot afford to rely entirely on the Healy to extend sovereignty into the Arctic and represent the country’s interest in the High North. The construction of a new polar class icebreaker could take a decade and may cost as much as $1 billion.

The lack of U.S. Arctic capabilities was prominently noted in 2005 by the Committee on the Assessment of U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Roles and Future Needs: “Operations and maintenance of the polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years, and the capabilities of the nation’s icebreaking fleet have diminished substantially. Deferred long-term maintenance and failure to execute a plan for replacement or refurbishment […] have place the national interests in the polar regions at risk. […] Polar Icebreakers are essential instruments of U.S. national policy in the changing polar regions.”

When the new polar-class icebreaker Diefenbaker and the refurbished Polar Star set sail for the Arctic in 2017 and 2013 respectively, they will encounter increasingly crowded waters. China’s new $300 million icebreaker will enter into service by 2013 and officials declared that it needed “brothers and sisters.” Russia, already the largest operator of nuclear-powered icebreakers, recently announced that the icebreaker Sovetsky Soyuz, which has been in dry dock since 2007, will be restored to service and undergo a $40 million overhaul. The retrofit is expected to be completed by 2014 when another nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya will head to the dry dock for refueling and repairs.



Malte Humpert

Malte Humpert graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University in 2011 with a Master of Arts in European Studies. He completed his undergraduate studies in Political Science at California State University Northridge in 2007. During his graduate studies he focused on institutional regime change in the Arctic, energy and security issues in the High North, and the economic potential of the region's shipping routes. He is currently the executive director of The Arctic Institute , a research platform for circumpolar security issues founded in 2010. He speaks German, French, and Spanish.

Area of Focus
Arctic regime change, energy security, shipping routes