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              In this Dec. 1, 2009 photo provided by Aurora Expeditions, an inflatable boat carries tourists past an iceberg along the Antarctic Peninsula. In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. (AP Photo/Aurora Expeditions, Andrew Halsall) EDITORIAL USE ONLY
              In this Dec. 1, 2009 photo provided by Aurora Expeditions, an inflatable boat carries tourists past an iceberg along the Antarctic Peninsula. In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. (AP Photo/Aurora Expeditions, Andrew Halsall) EDITORIAL USE ONLY   

Coast Guard brings heavy ice-breaker ship to Arctic amid warnings from environmentalists

The U.S. Coast Guard has a heavy ice-breaking ship working in the Arctic region for the first time in more than four years.

The ship is capable of breaking through 21 feet of ice, and is being employed amid cries from environmentalists and politicians that Arctic ice is thinning.

Increased interest in developing the Arctic has spurred demand for ice-breakers to be sent up north.

“Every year we have more Coast Guard assets going up north,” said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy. “We realized we really needed to have these heavy ice breakers up there and it would be beneficial to retrofit one.”

With two of the U.S.’s three heavy ice-breakers out of commission, the Polar Star was refurbished at an estimated cost of $55 million to help keep Arctic waterways clear of ice and to be used as a science platform.

The Alaska Dispatch reports that the 399 foot Polar Star “supports a crew of 134, and can conduct scientific operations with a staff of 32” and “[unlike] the Coast Guard’s medium-class icebreaker, the Healy — a 420-foot vessel — the Polar Star is equipped to smash through up to 6 feet of ice at 3 knots and 21 feet if backing and ramming.”

The Coast Guard’s smaller ice-breaker, the Healy, can only break through 4.5 feet of ice at 3 knots and break through 8 feet of ice while backing and ramming.

The call for more ice-breakers comes while environmentalists are warning that Arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate.

“For over 800,000 years, ice has been a permanent feature of the Arctic ocean,” says the group Save the Arctic. “It’s melting because of our use of dirty fossil fuel energy, and in the near future it could be ice-free for the first time since humans walked the Earth.”

Even Obama administration senior science adviser John Holdren warned of the dire consequences of losing Arctic sea ice cover.

“[If] you lose the summer sea ice, there are phenomena that could lead you not so very long thereafter to lose the winter sea ice as well,” he said in 2009. “And if you lose that sea ice year round, it’s going to mean drastic climatic change all over the hemisphere.”

The Arctic’s vast mineral wealth has caught the eye of countries, like China and Russia, which are now looking to explore the region, especially as new waterways open up and make exploration easier.

“Five or six years ago, most people would have reacted skeptically to the suggestion that China, for example, would become a major player in the Arctic,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the Guardian. “Like other countries now looking northward, it wants to exploit the emerging shipping opportunities and the largely unexploited energy and mineral resources in the region.”

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