‹ Infrastructure

Breaking the ice

December 01, 2013

The arctic nation with impressive ice-breaker capability is Russia, Canada and United States not so much.

Russia has been actively using the Northern Sea Route for almost 80 years now, with ice-breakers ensuring naval and civilian ship traffic across thick ice along the route. The world’s first nuclear-powered ice-breaker Lenin started active operation in 1960. Bigger and more powerful icebreakers of the Arktika class, such as the 50 Years of Victory and the Yamal, have been playing the first fiddle, as it were, since the 1970s. Russia has 32 ice-breakers-as much as the other nations in the world combined.

Construction got under way at the Baltic shipyard in St. Petersburg on November 5 of a new-generation LK-60Ya nuclear-powered icebreaker.  The lead ship has been named as a tribute to her prominent Soviet predecessor, the Arktika, or Arctic, which was also the first ship of her project, as well as the first surface ship to reach the North Pole. The lead icebreaker of the project is due to start active operation in 2018.

The US has three ice breakers, the Healy (built in 1999), the Polar Sea and the Polar Star (were built during the 1970s). Both ships are a decade past their 30-year life span. For the past two years the U.S. has had just one operational oceangoing icebreaker, the medium-duty Healy. The US Coast Guard has beefed up its presence in the Bering Sea by deploying helicopters near Nome.

Canada has 6 ice-breakers, all 1980s vintages or older. The Canadian Coast Guard has started measures to keep the old Louis S. St-Laurent (built 1969, refurb in 1988) in service until 2021–2022. At that time it is expected that the John G. Diefenbaker will be complete. This new ship will be fitted with a fully integrated diesel-electric propulsion system consisting of five diesel generating sets (2 × 9,000 kW, 3 × 8,000 kW) divided in two engine rooms and providing power for all shipboard consumers. The propulsion system, the shaft power of the new icebreaker is 36 MW or 12 MW per shaft, the same as for the Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers Taymyr and Vaygach. Once built, John G. Diefenbaker will be the most powerful diesel-electric icebreaker in the world. 

The Danish navy has three small older ice-breakers, that could assist operations in Greenland. They are for sale to the highest bidder.

China’s first icebreaker began its maiden voyage in 2012. A second Chinese ship, a polar research vessel, is due to enter service in 2014.

The ice breaking performance in level ice reflects the capability of the ship in ice. This breaking performance solely does not necessarily make a good icebreaker. The requirements for a good icebreaker include a sufficient speed in the ice conditions of the operational area and good maneuverability in ice for escort operations. The Russian nuclear ice-breakers are the most powerful in the world-they can force their way through 8 foot thick ice at speeds up to 10 knots.


The northwest passage was used for the first time in a generation this year to haul coal from Vancouver to Finland. Ice breakers may become a more important asset as trade grows.