Battering rams of the Arctic: icebreakers, explained

Battering rams of the Arctic: icebreakers, explained

When ice floes stretch to the horizon in the Arctic Circle, threatening to strand normal ships, icebreakers are in their element.

For big vessels, they can turn quickly to avoid big blocks of ice, and can stop fast. They can slice through many ice fields without a shudder. And when the going gets rough, they can push their mighty bow on top of the ice and bust it up through the sheer force of the ship’s weight.

 Sea ice breaks up as the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails through the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Sea ice breaks up as the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails through the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Icebreakers, like the one transporting Associated Press reporters and international researchers through the Northwest Passage, are the battering rams of far northern climes. Such specially built ships ply waters of the Arctic regions of Canada and Russia, the Baltic Sea and the Great Lakes of North America — places where thick ice forms at least part of the year.

They are used to transport or install equipment. And they escort or come to the aid of ships without icebreaking capabilities.

 Canadian ice navigator, David "Duke" Snider compares satellite ice imagery from September 2016 on the left to last week's, on the right, for the same area where the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica will be traversing through the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Canadian ice navigator, David "Duke" Snider compares satellite ice imagery from September 2016 on the left to last week's, on the right, for the same area where the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica will be traversing through the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The MSV Nordica, operated by Finnish company Arctia, a government-owned enterprise, is equipped with several heavy-duty engines and a hardened bow and rounded hull. The ship’s 13,000 tons break the ice from above.

When ice is particularly thick, the vessel can turn around and use its huge azimuth thrusters — a versatile type of propeller — to chew a path through the ice.

There are more than 100 dedicated icebreaking ships around the world. Russia has over 40 — by far the most — due in part to its long Arctic coastline. The country also has the only nuclear-powered icebreakers — and one became the first surface vessel to punch its way through to the North Pole in 1977.

 The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails through sea ice on the Beaufort Sea while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica sails through sea ice on the Beaufort Sea while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The United States currently operates one heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, and one medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy. Plans are under way for the U.S to build several new icebreakers that would enter service in the next decade.

Among the more unusual icebreaking vessels are hovercraft that can create waves under the ice, causing it to quiver and snap.

 The azimuth thruster and hull of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica are seen underwater in the Dolphin and Union Strait off the coast of Canada as the ship sails the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The thrusters which can turn 360 degrees can break ice up to one one meter thick by churning the water underneath. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The azimuth thruster and hull of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica are seen underwater in the Dolphin and Union Strait off the coast of Canada as the ship sails the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The thrusters which can turn 360 degrees can break ice up to one one meter thick by churning the water underneath. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

 Master Mariner Jyri Viljanen, left, captain of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica and first officer Jukka Vuosalmi, are seen through the window of the bridge navigating through ice floating on the Beaufort Sea while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017. There are more than 100 dedicated icebreaking ships around the world. Russia has over 40 _ by far the most _ due in part to its long Arctic coastline. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Master Mariner Jyri Viljanen, left, captain of the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica and first officer Jukka Vuosalmi, are seen through the window of the bridge navigating through ice floating on the Beaufort Sea while traversing the Arctic's Northwest Passage, Sunday, July 16, 2017. There are more than 100 dedicated icebreaking ships around the world. Russia has over 40 _ by far the most _ due in part to its long Arctic coastline. (AP Photo/David Goldman)


Text from the AP news story, Battering rams of the Arctic: icebreakers, explained, by Frank Jordans.

Follow a team of AP journalists as they travel through the Arctic Circle’s fabled Northwest Passage: New Arctic on AP News 

Photos by David Goldman

Text Frank Jordans

Visual artist and Digital Storyteller at The Associated Press