U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Star docks after Arctic research

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star recently arrived in Juneau, Alaska, as its crew neared the end of a monthslong deployment conducting scientific research in the Arctic and safeguarding U.S. maritime security throughout the Arctic Region.

The U.S. Coast Guard said in a news release that the Polar Star — a heavy icebreaker — sailed north on December 4, 2020, with scientists and researchers aboard (including some from nongovernmental partner organizations and others from the United Kingdom and additional allied countries) on its first winter Arctic deployment since 1982.

Left: Man looking out ship windows (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham) Right: Line of sailors aiming rifles at sky (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Tedd Meinersmann)
Left: Captain Bill Woityra looks out from the Polar Star’s bridge while underway in the Bering Strait. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham) Right: The crew performs a burial at sea ceremony in the Gulf of Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Tedd Meinersmann)

It finished its deployment February 20, successful in meeting its dual objectives, national security and scientific. Its crew has gathered data to “better understand how to operate year-round in Arctic waters,” the Coast Guard said.

The Arctic is “cold, dark and difficult to navigate in the winter,” said Captain Bill Woityra, the ship’s commanding officer. The scientists aboard furthered the development of technologies to mitigate the risks of operating in such a remote environment.

Left: Man and woman crew members working on equipment Right: View of ice-covered water with two people walking across (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)
Left: Engineers aboard the Polar Star fix a saltwater pump while underway in the Bering Sea. Right: Ice rescue petty officers from the ship find a safe path for their team before the crew’s ice-rescue training in the Bering Strait. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)

For example, the Polar Star crew and their partners deployed buoys onto the ice to collect and transmit information about ice flow, which will help fill in data gaps for higher-latitude oceans.

The crew also took part in several other projects, one of which involved the testing of an ultra-high-frequency satellite communications system at high latitudes and under harsh weather conditions. The system, developed for the U.S. Navy by Lockheed Martin, is designed to provide secure connections for mobile forces.

A global endeavor

The collaboration with partners on data-gathering, while offering junior Coast Guard personnel critical experience in the Arctic, will aid future Arctic sailors.

In the coming years, Woitrya said, the Coast Guard plans to increase its icebreaking fleet with up to six new icebreakers, ensuring a national presence and maintaining access to the polar regions.

Left: Crew member using mallet to remove ice from side of ship Right: Crew members on ship's deck looking toward shore (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)
Left: A member of the Polar Star crew works in below-freezing temperatures to remove ice from the ship’s hull while underway in the Chukchi Sea. Right: The ship moors in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)

Working with allies in the Arctic is important, because understanding the polar regions and how to best navigate them “is a global endeavor,” the Coast Guard said.

The allied sea services of the U.K. and the U.S. have similar mission sets. For instance, the crew of Her Majesty’s Ship Protector — an ice-patrol ship based in England — typically works in support of the British Antarctic Survey, enforcing conservation of polar marine resources in that region.

View past ship's buoy of snowy open water and starry night sky (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)
The Polar Star, underway in the Arctic Ocean, projects power and supports national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the U.S.-Russia Maritime Boundary Line. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham)

It follows then that two international officers from the Royal Navy sailed aboard the Polar Star during its Arctic mission. One is Lieutenant Jacob Stein, of HMS Protector. In addition to gaining ice-pilot training, Stein said, he learned how the U.S. Coast Guard navigates the dark, frozen environment.

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Admiral Linda Fagan, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure and rules-based Arctic.”