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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In a bid to boost U.S. presence in the Arctic, the heavy-duty icebreaker Polar Star is headed north this year instead of to Antarctica, its usual annual destination.

The change in direction is due to safety precautions against COVID-19; scientists, who would normally be on board for research in the South Pole region, have been grounded.

But it also reflects changing geo-political dynamics.

The U.S. military is leery of Russian and Chinese efforts to push into Arctic realms both physically and diplomatically.

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of 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,” according to a Coast Guard statement.

The Polar Star is the Coast Guard’s most powerful ship and can cut through ice up to 21 feet thick.

“Polar Star is poised to head into the cold, dark Arctic winter to carry out a historic mission,” said Capt. Bill Woitrya, the cutter’s commanding officer. “The ship is ready, and the crew is enthusiastic to embark on this adventure. We will defend U.S. interests in the region, and continue to hone our proficiency to operate in such a harsh, remote environment.”

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Matthew Bell said the cutter will patrol the Beaufort and Chukchi seas through mid-February then return to its home port in Seattle. It’s expected to travel to return to the South Pole again next year.


The Coast Guard said, “The 44-year-old heavy icebreaker will project power and support national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia. The Polar Star will detect and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and conduct Arctic training essential for developing future icebreaker operators.”

Countries around the world are turning their eyes north as climate change melts the Arctic polar ice cap. The size and seasonal duration of sea ice is diminishing in the Arctic Ocean and Chukchi and Bering seas, opening up opportunities for resource development and new navigational routes.

The expectation is that Arctic mining for oil, gas, and rare earth metals, and commercial fishing will become more feasible in coming years. For increasingly longer seasons, ships can navigate across the “top” of Canada and Russia, dramatically cutting distances between Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Russia is working to take advantage of those potential opportunities. It’s building dozens of military bases and ports along its northern coast. It has dozens of icebreakers, some nuclear powered. The U.S. has one icebreaker. Russia has also stepped up military flights and operations near Alaska and Canada.

(See related story: Climate change stokes military challenges in Alaska)

Bell said Russia and China have begun “fielding advanced long-range weapons systems and engaging in increasingly aggressive efforts to expand their global presence and influence, including in the approaches to the United States and Canada.”

In August, American fishing crews were startled when Russians ordered them to leave a Bering Sea area where they were fishing. About 50 Russian warships, 40 aircraft and a submarine were engaged in military exercises, including live missile launches.

This occurred outside US waters and the Alaskan Command at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage had been notified of the upcoming activities. So the US Coast Guard told fishermen to obey the Russian Navy’s orders.

More than in years past, Russian bombers are regularly coming within a few miles of Alaskan and Canadian airspace on multi-hour forays.

China has laid out a strategic plan that would make Chinese use of Arctic shipping rights a priority, increase resource development, enhance Chinese security, and give it a role in governance of Arctic regions. China is buying land and investing in economic ventures in Greenland and Iceland. It’s working in international forums, such as the Arctic Council, to have a say in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic” nation.

In October at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, military leaders described ways the U.S. military is working to better project national sovereignty in the Arctic. The Army, Navy, National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are all investing in expanded operations in Alaska, including more training, new equipment, better facilities and a more visible presence.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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