The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Antarctica — and Why It Is Important

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes expedition. (Public Domain)

Smithsonian Magazine brings us the story of American explorer Charles Wilkes, who while commanding USS Vincennes, was the first to map the coast of Antarctica. They talk about why it is important and why the apparent decline in US interest in Antarctica is dangerous.

As the northern ice melts, the Arctic Ocean is already the scene of international jockeying for mining rights. But as China scholar Anne-Marie Brady has documented extensively, Beijing views Antarctica as the last great terrestrial frontier on Earth, hosting great deposits of coal, natural gas, precious minerals, added to plentiful fish stocks in the surrounding ocean and even vast freshwater reserves locked up in Antarctic ice. China intends to exploit the continent fully once the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, if not sooner. With nations hungry for new sources of oil and mineral wealth, and China laying the groundwork for industrialization of the pole, the stakes for Antarctica couldn’t be higher.

This is why we need icebreakers, and why they have to have provision installing effective self defense weapons. We cannot expect the Antarctic treaty to extend beyond 2048. As soon as one nation withdraws there is going to be a land rush there and it could lead to armed conflict.

As the nation with the greatest historical investment in Antarctica, the U.S. has the resources and authority to lead an international re-commitment to south polar conservation. By reaffirming its leadership role at the pole, America can ensure that the great game of the 21ar century does not repeat the mistakes of those of centuries prior, when the world’s pristine frontiers were fought over and ransacked with little thought for environmental damage, or for what future human generations might do once the last wilderness on Earth melts away.

 

“US’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 123-day Antarctic Treaty inspection and resupply mission” –News Release

Below is a news release. The unusual part of this, is that Polar Star was involve in inspection of foreign stations in Antarctica. These are the first such inspections since 2012. I certainly doubt there are any problems with the Italian and South Korean stations. Perhaps the Chinese presence bears watching. It is not that I expect they will find a military base, but it would not be surprising to find “dual use” facilities. Systems that could support both scientific activity and possible future military use. This was the way they started on their South China Sea artificial islands. I don’t think we can expect the current treaty to stay in place forever. 

united states coast guard

News Release

U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area
Contact: Coast Guard Pacific Area Public Affairs
Office: (510) 437-3375
After Hours: (510) 816-1700
D11-DG-M-PACAREA-PA@uscg.mil
Pacific Area online newsroom

US’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 123-day Antarctic Treaty inspection and resupply mission

Rear Adm. Jack Vogt, commander of the 13th Coast Guard district, welcomes the crew of USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) at Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The nation's only heavy icebreaker, during Operation Deep Freeze 2020 the Polar Star created a path through 451.1 nautical miles of ice up to 6 feet thick so that provisioning vessels could reach McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark)
USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) returns to homeport of Seattle A crewmember aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) supervises as mooring lines are passed to the pier on Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The Polar Star crew completed a 4-month deployment to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark) Rear Adm. Jack Vogt, commander of the 13th Coast Guard district, welcomes the crew of USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) at Base Seattle, Wednesday, March 25. The nation's only heavy icebreaker, during Operation Deep Freeze 2020 the Polar Star created a path through 451.1 nautical miles of ice up to 6 feet thick so that provisioning vessels could reach McMurdo Station, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Michael Clark)

SEATTLE — The 150-member crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star returned Wednesday to their homeport of Seattle following a 123-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

This mission marks the Polar Star’s 23rd journey to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze, an annual joint military service mission to resupply the United States Antarctic stations, in support of the National Science Foundation – the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program.  This year also marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation.

The Polar Star crew departed Seattle on Nov. 27, 2019, for their sixth deployment in as many years and traveled more than 26,350 miles through the North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans.

In the Southern Ocean, the crew travelled through nearly 500 miles of pack ice and broke through 23 miles of fast ice in order to create a nearly 18-square-mile navigable channel to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  Because of the efforts of the Polar Star crew, two resupply vessels and one tanker travelled to McMurdo Station unescorted in order to refuel and resupply U.S. Antarctic stations.

This year’s operation required the construction of a temporary, modular mobile causeway to replace an ice pier, which disintegrated during Operation Deep Freeze 2018-2019.  The modular pier required a three-day construction period prior to the offload of supplies, followed by a three-day deconstruction period at the conclusion of the mission.

Three resupply ships required 23 days to offload 19.6 million pounds of cargo and 7.6 million gallons of fuel during this year’s operation, more than doubling the operation duration and capacity as previous years. Together, the three ships delivered enough fuel and critical supplies to sustain NSF operations throughout the year until Polar Star returns in 2021.

Among the cargo offloaded were construction materials for a five-year, $460 million Antarctica Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project to recapitalize McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and other American outposts on the continent.  

Additionally, the Polar Star crew also supported a team of U.S. government officials from the U.S. Department of State, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Coast Guard who conducted a five-day inspection of foreign research stations, installations and equipment in Antarctica.

The United States continues to promote Antarctica’s status as a continent reserved for peace and science in accordance with the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The inspection serves to verify compliance with the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol, including provisions prohibiting military measures and mining, as well as provisions promoting safe station operation and sound environmental practices.

The team inspected three stations: Mario Zucchelli (Italy), Jang Bogo (South Korea), and Inexpressible Island (China). This was the fifteenth inspection of foreign research stations by the United States in Antarctica and the first since 2012.

Inspections emphasize all of Antarctica is accessible to interested countries despite territorial claims and reinforce the importance of compliance with the Antarctic Treaty’s arms control provisions. The United States will present its report on the inspection at the next Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in May 2020.

“I am very proud of the tenacity of this Polar Star crew,” said Coast Guard Capt. Greg Stanclik, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “158 crew members earned the Antarctic Service Medal during Operation Deep Freeze 2020. The words inscribed on the back of the medal are Courage, Sacrifice and Devotion. Each and every one exhibited the courage to make this 123-day Antarctic voyage, sacrificed time away from their loved ones and devoted themselves to executing this nationally critical mission.”

Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker, capable of breaking ice up to 21 feet thick. Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the ship spends the winter breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, returns to dry dock in order to conduct critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission.

If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability.

By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 50 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965 and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new polar security cutters to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

In April 2019, the Coast Guard awarded VT Halter Marine Inc. of Pascagoula, Mississippi, a contract for the design and construction of the Coast Guard’s lead polar security cutter, which will also be homeported in Seattle. The contract also includes options for the construction of two additional PSCs.

“Replacing the Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is paramount,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area. “Our ability to clear a channel and allow for the resupply of the United States’ Antarctic stations is essential for continued national presence and influence on the continent.”

CRS: “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress”/ Plus a Note on Great Lakes Icebreaker Procurement

The Congressional Research Service his issued a revised “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress” updated 9 August 2019.

It includes a short appendix (Appendix E, pp 63-66) on the issue of a potential new Great Lakes icebreaker. The final paragraph of that appendix states:

“An examination of procurement costs for Mackinaw, the National Science Foundation’s ice-capable research ship Sikuliaq, new oceanographic research ships being procured for NOAA, and OPCs suggests that a new Mackinaw-sized heavy Great Lakes icebreaker built in a U.S. shipyard might have a design and construction cost between $175 million and $300 million, depending on its exact capabilities and the acquisition strategy employed. The design portion of the ship’s cost might be reduced if Mackinaw’s design or the design of some other existing icebreaker were to be used as the parent design. Depending on the capabilities and other work load of the shipyard selected to build the ship, the construction time for a new heavy Great Lakes icebreaker might be less than that of a new heavy polar icebreaker.”

If you would like a quick, only slightly out of date (May 2017), summary of world icebreaker fleets, take a look at Fig. B-1, page 40.

“Meet the neglected 43-year-old stepchild of the U.S. military-industrial complex” –Los Angeles Times

Great article from the Los Angeles Times about the trials, tribulations, (and joys) of being on the Polar Star, recounting her three and a half month 2018/2019 Deep Freeze.

And once again she goes into the dry dock in Vallejo, California, rather than a yard in her homeport (for 5 months). If you add it up, she spends more time in Vallejo than her homeport (3.5 months). Since she is being drydocked every year, maybe it is time to move the families closer to the shipyard. According to the article she is expected to continue in service another seven years.

“More US Military Power Needed in Antarctic to Deter Malign Activity, General Says” –Military.com

The Coast Guard Icebreaker program is getting support from an Airforce General. Military.com reports Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Charles Q. Brown is seeing signs that Great Power competition may be coming to Antarctica.

“The Arctic … is kind of a precursor to the way I look at the Antarctic,” Brown said. “The capabilities that we have in the Arctic are the same capabilities that we probably want to have in the Antarctic. And when I look at the competition, and the melting ice in the Arctic, and the competition with both Russia and China … we’ve got to pay attention to that,” he said.

Brown said he believes the South Pole “is just a number of years” away from being the same kind of focal point of competition for Russia and China that the Arctic is now.

While the treaty bans militarization and weapons use on the continent, it allows for the flow of military personnel and equipment into the region. In 1998, an additional measure was added to the treaty, called the “Protocol on Environmental Protection,” which stipulates that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”

That measure is set to expire in 2048, Brown said. The general hinted there already may be non-sanctioned activity taking place in the region.

At some point in the future one of the several nations with interests in Antarctica is going to try to act on a claim to this the last land on earth without a recognized sovereign authority. When that happens we are going to see a land rush and likely a clash of some sort. When the Antarctic treaty was signed, seven sovereign states had already made claims to Antarctic territory. There were already conflicting claims between the UK, Argentina, and Chile. The US and USSR (Russia now as its successor) reserved the right to make future claims. Since then, three additional South American countries have declared that they have interests there, and China has taken advantage of the provisions of the treaty to allow it to become a major player in Antarctica.

Antarctica has been seen as a zone of peace, but unless a treaty can be negotiated that would allow it to be exploited as a condominium, to me it has the makings of a powder keg. 

High Latitude Challenges from Russia and China

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry, Arctic Council, by Susie Harder

Two recent articles, first from the Institute for the Study of War, a discussion of how the Russians appear to be following the lead of the Chinese in the South and East China Seas by militarizing the Arctic and attempting to thwart the concept of innocent passage just as they have at the Kerch Strait connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.

Keep in mind the Navy had asked the Coast Guard to provide an icebreaker to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Exercise in the Arctic, but the Coast Guard felt it would be unable to provide because of the state of the icebreaker fleet.

It also considers the apparent frienemy relationship between Russia and China. Russia needs China’s investment, but distrust China’s long term motivation.

Thanks to Sven for bringing this to my attention

Second, an article from the US Naval Institute discussing Chinese ambitions in the Arctic and Antarctica, “China’s Activities in the Polar Regions Cannot Go Unchecked.”

Apparently they are planning a permanent airport in Antarctica.

“Beijing claims the new airfield would support scientific research and economic tourism. But like many overseas Chinese facilities, it could be quickly, easily, and covertly repurposed for military use.”

‘The Chinese government currently spends more than any other state on new Antarctic infrastructure—bases, planes, and icebreakers intended to underpin China’s claimed Antarctic resource and governance rights.”

In the Arctic, China is making,

“strategic investment in infrastructures and resources that may serve military or security as well as commercial purposes (but which often make little economic sense), and scientific research that advances both military and commercial interests.”

It appears the Chinese, in addition to their interests in the Arctic for transportation and resource exploitation, may be positioning themselves to make extensive claims in Antarctica when the current treaty system expires in 2048 or if it should be annulled earlier.

Frankly I feel we are going to see a land rush in 2048, with all the craziness that can bring.