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US Coast Guard proposes development plans for $1 billion icebreakers for future polar expeditions

As part of President Obama's September trip to Alaska to discuss the fight against climate change, he emphasized the need for more icebreakers so the United States can operate year-round in the changing Arctic.

Now, four months later, the U.S. Coast Guard is making progress on meeting his request with the proposed development of two new heavy icebreakers, Reuters reports. Each ship will reportedly cost $1 billion.

In a Federal Business Opportunities solicitation posted Jan. 13, the Coast Guard said it is planning to host an industry day in March and one-on-one meetings with prospective shipbuilders and ship designers. A notional acquisition schedule has the production phase beginning in 2020, which adheres to the Obama Administration's request that the timetable be accelerated from 2022.

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"The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities and provide for regional peace and stability," the White House said back in September. "Accordingly, meeting these challenges requires the United States to develop and maintain capacity for year-round access to greater expanses within polar regions."

The U.S. is trying to make up ground on Russia, which has a fleet of 41 icebreakers and another 11 planned or under construction. Petrochemical exploration and fisheries are just a couple of national interests at stake for the U.S. in this part of the world.

Currently, there are only two operational polar icebreakers at the Coast Guard's disposal, the 399-foot Polar Star and the 420-foot Healy, which is the latest and most technologically advanced icebreaker in the fleet. The Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, is expected to remain in service through approximately 2020.

The Coast Guard also unveiled a list of design and operational requirements. One of them indicates that the icebreakers must be able to continuously push through at least 6 feet of ice, and as much as 8 feet while moving at a speed of 3 knots. In comparison, the Healy, a medium-sized icebreaker used primarily for research, can break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots.

The icebreakers will be used in a variety of climates, including polar, tropical, dry and temperate. Ships will encounter air temperatures as low as minus 72 degrees Fahrenheit to as high as 114 F, the Coast Guard said.

In February of 2015, the Arctic sea ice maximum extent was the lowest value since records began in 1979. Additionally, the minimum extent in September was the fourth lowest on record.

"It is well understood that the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world. One of the reasons for this is the loss of sea ice," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson stated in a recent blog post. "As more sea ice is lost during the melt season, more open water is exposed. Open water is darker in color and has a lower albedo, which allows more of the sun's heat to be absorbed by the surface."

As a result of the decrease in sea ice, cruise ships are able to travel farther north and routine Arctic maritime traffic is anticipated by approximately 2020, the White House said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.