As Arctic role grows, Coast Guard cadets get chance to weigh in
New London — As melting sea ice opens up the Arctic to increased maritime traffic and exploration, Coast Guard Academy cadets are thinking up the kind of icebreakers the Coast Guard will need to operate in this remote, changing polar landscape.
Naval architecture and marine engineering students are finishing up a yearlong project designing medium-sized icebreakers for Coast Guard and commercial use, and will present the designs to Coast Guard officials next week.
It's unlikely the cadets' designs will be implemented but they do give Coast Guard officials an idea of what's possible, and it helps them better understand design tradeoffs, said Cmdr. Tom DeNucci, head of the naval architecture and marine engineering program at the academy.
Plus, the cadets will be presenting to Coast Guard officials who make the decisions about purchasing and building ships.
The head of the Coast Guard has said the U.S. is falling behind in the Arctic, and has pushed, in his last year leading the service, for plans to build three medium and three heavy icebreakers.
"We are trusted in the Arctic to preserve our sovereignty over precious oil and minerals, to ensure access to opening shipping routes, and, let's not forget, to keep our border secure in a region with an emerging U.S. coastline and a mounting Russian footprint," Adm. Paul Zukunft said during his final State of the Coast Guard address.
The Coast Guard currently has only one heavy icebreaker that is operational, the 42-year-old Polar Star, which is capable of breaking up ice that is 6 feet thick. The Coast Guard cutter Healy is the service's only medium icebreaker, which can break ice up to 4½ feet thick and was designed to carry out a range of research activities.
Over the past six years, naval architecture and marine engineering students at the academy have designed icebreakers for their senior projects given they've been a top priority for the Coast Guard. Though the criteria has ranged.
This time around, cadets were asked to make preliminary designs of medium-sized commercial and Coast Guard icebreakers. They spent time researching existing military and commercial ships and copied the features they liked. They designed major aspects of the ship, such as its hull, and propulsion and auxiliary systems, did cost analyses, and came up with crewing requirements.
One group of cadets designed a commercial icebreaker that could serve as an offshore supply and scientific research vessel.
"A ship that's capable of doing both is much more marketable," said First-class Cadet Jessica Stein, 25, of Ithaca, N.Y.
The group also changed the bow of its ship so it was shaped like a spoon, because research showed that was best for breaking ice.
Other groups included space for helicopters, which could go out and do ice reconnaissance, and capability to launch unmanned underwater vehicles. A group that was tasked with designing a more innovative, cutting edge Coast Guard icebreaker designed a ship that can break ice backwards. They also toyed with the idea of a ship that could break ice sideways.
The cadets included lots of redundancy in their designs because, in a remote region like the Arctic, you need to be prepared if something goes wrong.
First-class Cadet Megan Rice, 25, of Snohomish, Wash., was able to use her experience of spending five weeks on the Healy as it prepared for an Arctic patrol several summers ago to help inform her group's design of a low-cost, low-risk Coast Guard icebreaker.
"Having been on the Healy, I had good idea of where things were, how much machinery was required, and also how the crew interacts, how personnel fit in," Rice said.
After graduating next month, Rice will serve as a student engineer on the Polar Star.
"What I'm hoping for is to be involved in the future acquisition of new icebreakers in the Coast Guard," she said.