The Realities of Icebreaking

The White House wants ice breakers.  Well, at least one new ice breaker.  The Artic region is becoming economically and politically more important and the US is playing catch-up.

Russia has prioritised the polar region and according to ABB’s Samuli Hanninen, who specialises in icebreaking vessels, “The US has lost most of its icebreaker fleet and it is greatly out powered by the Russians.”

The demand for ice breaking vessels has been driven largely by market forces.  It is estimated that 20% of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas resources can be found in the Artic.  Recently Royal Dutch Shell was given a permit to drill off the coast of Alaska after convincing officials over safety concerns. 

Fesco-Azipod-III_webHanninen says, “Some major oil & gas projects in Arctic have been developed over last years and now started to be realised. New icebreaking vessels have been ordered for cargo transportation and icebreaking support and assistance.”  

Whilst the search for fossil fuels is a key driving force behind the upswing in demand, political forces cannot be ignored. Denmark, Canada, the US and Russia all have territorial claims in the Arctic and it is the latter which has seized the initiative.  The Baltiskiy shipyard in St Petersburg reportedly has a long pipeline of Russian vessels including several nuclear powered icebreakers and three 60MW vessels.  Icebreaking expert Hanninen says China is showing added interest.

On a recent trip to Alaska Barack Obama highlighted the fact that the US fleet is much less extensive.  It is reported that the only heavy ice cutter operating under US colours is almost 40 years old and is expected to be mothballed by the end of 2022.  Given plans for a new billion dollar vessel could take a decade to materialise, Washington could be left without a heavy duty ice cutter for a number of years.

Environmental Concerns

There are few more important symbols to climate change advocates than the Arctic.

Environmentalists have reacted angrily to oil drilling projects in the region who fear the pristine environment should not be risked.  The International Maritime Organisation has adopted the Polar Code, a set of rules proposed by the Artic Council.  Among the regulations are bans on the discharge of oily substances and strict guidelines on structural requirements to protect fuel and cargo. 

ABB is striving to ensure the impact on sea life is kept to a minimum, says Hanninen.  He said, “On several arctic vessels concern about underwater (UW) noise and its effect to fish and marine mammals have been an issue. ABB has done extensive research and measurements to study UW noise signature of vessels and ABB is actively seeking technologies to minimise UW radiated noise and impact to the environment.”

ABB has a history of working with ship builders to find innovative solutions to the challenges posed by Artic conditions. Double-acting vessels, meaning ships which can operate stern first in heavy ice conditions, are in high demand.  ABB has helped develop a multi-pod design, whereby Azipod propulsion units are fitted on both the stern and aft, to achieve this goal.  There is also the possibility to combine Azipod and shaft line propellers. 

Future of Arctic Exploration

Hanninen_February2015_webWith so much oil and gas under the earth’s crust in the region, strong demand for icebreaking vessels is likely to be a trend which continues.  To try and ease concerns over their ecological impact the idea of LNG powered vessels in the region is gaining more traction.

Hanninen says, “The Arctic region will remain in focus. When the tense global situation relaxes Western Oil majors will continue their work in the Arctic with Russian oil companies. The Kara Sea has great potential as does the Sakhalin region. The East Siberian Sea is almost unexplored but full of promise.”

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