© Xinhua/Zhang Jiansong
The Xue Long icebreaker. © Xinhua/Zhang Jiansong

Summer is the season for scientific expeditions in the Arctic, as the ice is finally thin and sparse enough that light icebreakers can ply the circumpolar waters. Yet while both of America’s heavy icebreakers are sidelined and Canada laments its lack of icebreakers, China will soon be sending an icebreaker to the Arctic and constructing a new one.

The Xue Long (Snow Dragon), a scientific research vessel, will be on its 4th expedition to the circumpolar region. According to Whats On Xiamen, The purpose of the current mission, which begins on July 1, is to study the atmosphere, sea ice, and melting in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas, the Canada Basin, and the Mendeleev Sea Ridge. 122 people are on board, including scientists, support staff, reporters, crew, and several researchers from other countries like the U.S., South Korea, and Estonia. There is even one scientist from Taiwan, marking the second-ever time in which a Taiwanese scientist has joined a Chinese polar expedition. The Xue Long will stay in the Arctic for 85 days before returning to port in Shanghai.

The Xue Long has a rather colorful history in the Arctic stretching back at least a decade, demonstrating that China’s interest in the region is not completely new. In 1999, the icebreaker arrived unexpectedly in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Though the vessel had notified Canadian authorities that it was coming, the message was somehow disregarded, leaving the government and port officials unprepared. This incident prompted concerns over Canada’s ability to defend its Arctic coastlines, as expressed during a hearing in 2005 in the Parliament’s Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Dr. Rob Huebert, who at the time was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary and the Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said,

“What we need is the capability of knowing, and then responding. For example, when the Chinese research vessel Xue Long shows up in Tuktoyaktuk and somebody gets it wrong in the Canadian embassy so that we are totally unprepared, we actually have the capability from a combination of air and space assets that we have the necessary RCMP, customs, health officials waiting at Tuk[toyaktuk] to do the necessary clearance.” [1]

Five years later, after numerous hearings, pronouncements, and bullet point lists designed to enhance Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, it still seems like there are many gaps to fill. The same committee has just issued a report on Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.  It makes 17 recommendations for how Canada can defend its northern waters and territory, but this could be just another exercise in list-making without follow-up. One of the seventeen recommendations is “that the government expedite the building of the promised John G. Diefenbaker icebreaker to ensure delivery within 15 years,” yet at the same time, the report makes it apparent that plans to construct a new icebreaker are in jeopardy, since “the status of the project is not entirely clear.” The status of the program to build  six to eight armed Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, has also been unclear ever since the procurement process was terminated in the summer of 2008 due to proposals from contractors which exceeded the government’s budget. Meanwhile, China is busy building what will probably be the world’s largest icebreaker.

Perhaps more interesting than the recommendations are the committee’s concerns, described in detail here. One of the countries which Canada would like to use as a model Arctic state is Norway, of which the report writes:

“Like us, the Norwegians prefer and pursue a policy of cooperation. However, ‘… even if Norwegian officials do not see an immediate military threat in the North they are spending as if they are expecting one to develop.’ “

Norway, along with the other Nordic Arctic countries, has been developing significant Arctic capabilities while Canada has faltered.  Its North American neighbor to the south, which Huerbert calls the “reluctant Arctic power,” is also at a disadvantage in terms of icebreakers because the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Sea has just broken down. Five of its six engines are broken, and the vessel will not be able to be used until at least January 2011. The ship will not be able to deploy for its fall Arctic patrol nor participate in Operation Deep Freeze, which supports the U.S. Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation. The U.S. may have to rely on other nations like China to assist in any disasters in the Arctic come winter, since it will not have any heavy-duty icebreakers. The only other icebreaker it has, the Healy, is not certified for thick ice.

At least the Healy is operational. NASA today posted an entry on its blog about the ICESCAPE Arctic expedition onboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s research icebreaker, the Healy, describing how an icebreaker works. Ice has weak tension but strong compression, so it must be crushed from above rather than being rammed from the side. The Healy set sail June 25 from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. ICESCAPE’s main research question is similar to what the Chinese are studying: “What is the impact of climate change (natural and anthropogenic) on the biogeochemistry and ecology of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas?””

News links

[1]  The Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defense, Canadian Parliament.

“Icebreaker Polar Sea sidelined by engine troubles,” U.S. Coast Guard

“America’s heavy icebreakers are both broken down,” Dot Earth Blog

“Troubled Waters,” The Globe and Mail

“Arctic security improvements are recommended,” CBC News

Categories: China USA/Alaska


Chinese icebreaker heads north while U.S. and Canada sidelined

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