Should the U.S. build icebreakers, create trade routes?

As we shift into the 21st century, the capabilities of our infrastructure to adapt to the changes in climate and the resultant changes in geography. The most notable of these shifts is the melting and thinning of polar ice caps. President Obama has mandated a fleet of ten new icebreaker ships, which he deems necessary to benefit the future economic and physical security of America as an arctic nation.

This week, Pugwash discussed the variety of effects these icebreakers could have. An icebreaker is a boat that can break up ice-covered water and allow safe passage for ships. Icebreakers are built such that they are able to maintain moderate speeds despite heavily reinforced hulls and the weight that they add. This allows them to easily submerge and crack thin ice.

When dealing with thicker ice, they sometimes will break the ice by repeatedly backing up and ramming it. Their thick hulls make them resilient to such collisions. The most obvious need for icebreakers is economic. Now that it is easier to navigate the Polar Regions, trade routes could emerge north of Canada. This could open up access to new energy sources in the Arctic. New trade routes could also make shipments of things like fuel and food to residents of Canada and parts of Alaska possible, raising quality of life for those citizens.

The problem is that icebreakers take about ten years to build, and each costs about one billion dollars. Getting pennies out of Congress’s piggy bank has been impossible in recent years. One solution that has been put forward by James G. Stavridis of the Wall Street Journal is “wet leases,” a common deal in the shipping industry where the United States contracts-out icebreakers, and the owner of the ship provides both the ship and the crew.

The ship is then under the control of the United States Coast Guard. Another possibility, according to Jen Judson of POLITICO, includes a current study of the capabilities of Canadian and Finnish firms to create icebreakers. Further, increased Arctic infrastructure has caused the temperature in the Arctic to rise at twice the rate of the rest of the world according to Slate’s Eric Holthaus. Without the bright white ice reflecting light, the darker water absorbs temperature more quickly.

Breaking up the ice makes it easier for the ice to melt and also easier for the surrounding region to get warmer. Climate change and rising sea levels present a host of economic problems: from the destruction of coastal cities via flooding and storms to weather events that make agricultural products more difficult to cultivate. The second pressing need behind icebreakers is security.

According to Holthaus, Russia and its fleet of 42 icebreakers have started claiming oil fields and other bits of infrastructure throughout the Arctic, including claiming a piece of land previously claimed by Denmark. Russia’s expansionism has already led to conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine, and is now escalating tensions in Syria. When NATO countries like Denmark and Norway are in Russia’s sights, this could significantly raise the threat for escalation.

With Russia and NATO conducting military training exercises mere yards from each other along Russia’s border with the Baltic States and tensions at a post-Cold War high, raising the stakes by bullying NATO states puts the world in a scary position. The United States having an icebreaker fleet to help allies control regions they have very little physical control over could help prevent Russia’s expansionist tendencies from beginning World War III.

However, the United States getting into contests with Russia has come very close to ending the world before. It might not be best to get into an arms race, even if the arms are much less dangerous. It seems our military and economic needs dictate we expand our icebreaker fleet and do it as quickly and cost effectively as possible, but expanding icebreaker fleets in a limited fashion may prevent many of the pressing issues.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on icebreaker ships.