Move under way to save ice breaker Glacier

The ice breaker that helped found McMurdo Station on Antarctica and performed a record-breaking 39 Arctic and Antarctic deployments.

Juneau, Alaska: The USS/USCG Glacier is far from her prime and floating in a federal mothball fleet, but both of Alaska’s U.S. senators have moved to get the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration to save this piece of floating history from the scrapyard.

The ice breaker that helped found McMurdo Station on Antarctica and performed a record-breaking 39 Arctic and Antarctic deployments may become scrap despite more than a decade of repairs and studies aimed at making the ship a museum or medical and scientific ship.

A nonprofit group has invested millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to fix up some of the ship’s systems and test the Glacier’s hull soundness. The ship was once the most powerful U.S. icebreaker in the fleet and the flagship of polar explorer Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd.

The running clock on a “Save the Glacier” website has ticked down to 11 hours and change for the nonprofit Glacier Society, as the maritime administration, also known as MARAD, is poised to decide whether Glacier would join 58 other vessels marked for scrapping.

It floats among the 58 vessels in the maritime administration’s Non-Ready Reserve fleet in California’s Suisun Bay. Many other vessels, most rotting hulks, have been stripped of toxins and towed through the Panama Canal for scrapping in recent years.

The staff at Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Washington, D.C., office were “huddling up” Monday and getting to work on the issue, said Communications Director Matthew Felling.

Sen. Mark Begich’s office fired off a letter Monday to Maritime Administrator David Matsuda in the ship’s defense.

In his letter to Matsuda, Begich stated the Glacier Society has sunk $3 million into the project, structurally surveyed the heavy-hulled ship and made plans for rehabilitation at a Bay Area shipyard.

Glacier’s final destination under current plans would be Florida, where it would serve as a museum.

The ship “has a storied history of service to our nation through its polar exploration and establishment of our base at McMurdo Sound. I request MARAD return the Glacier to donor status, save it from the scrap heap, and expedite its transfer to the Glacier Society,” Begich wrote.

Efforts to save the old ship have come close before to success, but perhaps never so close to failure. Earlier plans were for the Glacier to become a medical ship serving remote communities in the Arctic Circle, as well as a floating research platform. At one point the government was poised to sign the ship over to the Glacier Society.

Glacier Society Chairman Ben Koether began a public relations blitz last month at the culmination of a 14-year rollercoaster effort to break the ship out of mothballs. His message a month ago was one of desperation.

“We are at a critical time in the life of the storied Glacier, perhaps more difficult than any passage the storied ship has made in unforgiving environments,” said Koether, chairman of the Glacier Society and once a rookie Glacier navigator. The Society credits him as discoverer of “Koether Inlet” in the Bellingshausen Sea, Antarctica.

On Monday night, Koether was busy sending off letters.

Koether said a shipyard offered to trade another vessel for the Glacier and deliver the Glacier to its new home port in Miami, but MARAD refused.

Current plans call for the ice breaker to be towed from Suisun Bay through the Carquinez Strait as soon as Tuesday to a former Navy shipyard in nearby Vallejo, Calif., for cleanup. Within 30 days the ship could be towed under the Golden Gate Bridge and to a Gulf Coast scrapyard, he said.

In a prepared release, the scientist in charge of the Glacier Society’s museum project said the “ship has a unique role in U.S. history and its future.”

The vessel was a cold warrior, serving in “Operation Deep Freeze” in competition with Russian ice breakers as America rushed to explore the polar regions. It was the flagship for Byrd during the 1955-56 mission. The Glacier was in the Navy for years before donning Coast Guard orange in the 1960s, making its last trip to a pole in 1985. It was decommissioned by 1987.

“No other ship afloat can speak so well to the environmental issues we face both locally and on a global scale, such as rising CO2 levels affecting the Polar regions,” said Charles Green, founder of the environmental museum initiative and lead adviser to The Glacier Society. “The Glacier will be the most important museum in the world for people that want to discover information on environmental, oceanographic, polar and earth-sciences.”

Koether said the ship’s historical significance and environmental importance must be recognized and celebrated through its use as an interactive museum.

As the clock ticked, Koether vowed to keep working toward getting help from Congress or the Obama administration to make that happen.

Bureau Report