Icebreakers: Not the Kind You Use at a Cocktail Party

By Wofratz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
On the news the last few days here I’ve heard a couple of stories about icebreaker ships and I was like, what the what? That sounds awesome. So, I did some research. Last week, a large ice mass was blown into Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior, blocking cargo ship traffic across the lake and leaving ten to fifteen ships stranded and one damaged. When ice moves in around ships like this, they are pinched in on all sides. Documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobold, who was trapped in the Arctic sea for a number of days aboard a trawler, told Discovery News, “It’s as if a jigsaw puzzle came into place and you were locked in. The ice will move the way it wants to move.”

One famous example of such an event is when Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance becoming trapped in pack ice. The ship was stuck in the ice all through the winter of 1915. Eventually, the ice crushed the ship and sank it. The men evacuated to a nearby island and what followed was an epic 800 mile journey in a small life boat led by Shackleton to mount a rescue for his stranded crew.

Fortunately, the mariners in Whitefish Bay in 2015 will be spared such extreme exploits. Instead, icebreaker ships have been called in to rescue the stranded ships. Icebreaker ships are designed to push straight through the ice, leaving an ice free channel in their wake. To achieve this they have three essential design elements: (1.) A strengthened hull; (2.) an ice clearing shape to the bow; and (3)  a powerful engine that allows them to push through the ice.

While ships specially designed to navigate icy waters have been around since at least the 11th century, early icebreaker ships pale in power and efficacy to their modern behemoth  counterparts.

By Kappa Pi Sigma at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Behemoth? Yah.

Russia’s 50 Let Pobedy, a nuclear powered icebreaker, weighs 23,439 tons…um, that’s over 46 million pounds/21 million kilos. To put this is perspective, the largest commercial aircraft built in the U.S. is the Boeing 747-8 with takeoff weight of just under a million pounds. This ship weighs more than 46 747-8s!

Watching a video of 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), it seems to me that icebreakers of this magnitude don’t cut through the ice as much as they just smash it underneath their massive weight. Check this out:

And yes, I said nuclear powered icebreaker. While nearly all modern icebreakers are diesel-electric, or combined diesel-electric and mechanical propulsion systems, the former U.S.S.R./current Russia has built nine nuclear powered icebreakers, six of which are still in commission. One of these, the NS Arktika reached the North Pole in 1977, becoming the first ship to ever do so. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even realize a ship ever had reached the North Pole. Cool.

So, there you have it…icebreaker ships. I didn’t even know they existed a few days ago. I always find it encouraging to discover new things about the world I was totally unaware of. There is so much interesting stuff out there.

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