Have a spare polar icebreaker lying around? The National Science Foundation would like to hear from you.

The agency is scrambling to secure a ship to lead its annual resupply convoy to McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. research stations in Antarctica.

For the past five years, NSF has relied on a Swedish ship, the Oden, to break a channel in the ice for ships carrying fuel and cargo to McMurdo. But the Swedish Maritime Administration, which owns the Oden, declined to renew its contract with NSF this year. The Swedes want to keep their icebreaker closer to home after heavy ice in the Baltic Sea stranded ships and scrambled cargo traffic there last winter.

If the NSF can't find a replacement icebreaker to lead the journey -- scheduled to begin in early December and reach McMurdo in late January -- this year's Antarctic research season could be cut short.

"We are trying to work really diligently to identify alternatives," said NSF spokeswoman Debbie Wing. "It could impact the research season if we can't resupply for researchers to head down there."

McMurdo was once serviced by U.S. icebreakers, but the country's fleet has dwindled to just one operational vessel, the research ship Healy. It's in the middle of a seven-month science cruise in the Arctic Ocean.

NSF has asked the Coast Guard, which operates the Healy, to send the ship south to Antarctica this winter, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp Jr. told a Senate committee yesterday.

"We've gotten an inquiry at the staff level about the possibility of breaking out McMurdo," Papp said. "Sweden has decided that their national interests need [the Oden], so that ship is not available."

Slim chance of response from aging U.S. fleet
Now the Coast Guard must decide whether it can spare the Healy, which would mean going without a U.S. icebreaker in the Arctic for several months. A second U.S. icebreaker, the Polar Star, is being repaired in Seattle, but Papp said there's no chance it would be seaworthy in time to service Antarctica or provide coverage in the Arctic if the Healy heads south. A third icebreaker, the Polar Sea, is sitting in dry dock, and the Coast Guard plans to decommission it later this year.

"We're in what we call a strenuous chase right now trying to catch up," Papp told lawmakers, describing the aging U.S. icebreaking fleet.

Meanwhile, NSF spokeswoman Wing said it's not clear how the Antarctic's summer research season -- which runs from November to February -- would be affected if her agency can't find a replacement for the Oden.

An email from the contractor that operates NSF's three Antarctic stations suggests that the biggest challenge would be finding a way to transport fuel to McMurdo.

The station, whose population swells from about 150 in winter to 1,000 each summer, is also a supply hub for the U.S. base at the South Pole, Amundsen-Scott. (A third U.S. research base, Palmer Station, is serviced by an ice-strengthened research vessel, the Lawrence M. Gould.)

"If an icebreaker is not available to clear a channel in the sea ice, fuel and cargo resupply ships may not be able to reach McMurdo Station," reads the email from Raytheon Polar Services.

"We could possibly airlift enough cargo to maintain most operations, but fuel is another story. Fuel is critical for the McMurdo and South Pole station power and water plants, flight operations, field camps, and even support of other national programs. We will need to plan in order to reserve enough fuel to last until late January 2013, which could be the earliest that we could re-supply fuel, if there is not an icebreaker this season."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500