IT WAS snowing at the edge of Lake Erie during the commissioning ceremony for the USS Little Rock in December 2017. The US Navy ship cost more than $ 300 million and is designed to have the speed and manoeuvrability needed for anti-submarine warfare. Towards the end of the ceremony, the ship’s chaplain prayed for its crew: “Protect them from the perils of the sea and the violence of the enemy.”
Ice probably wasn’t at the forefront of his mind, yet it is the most troublesome foe the ship has faced to date. It is trapped in port, its route to sea frozen shut.
The USS Little Rock is only the latest ship to be frozen out of action. Freight and research vessels routinely get stuck in Arctic ice, leaving crews twiddling their thumbs until an icebreaker ship arrives to smash a path out. But icebreakers make slow progress and frequently get stuck themselves. Luckily, there is an alternative approach that promises to clear ice much quicker: just give it the right sort of shake.
Despite the risks of ice, Arctic seas are getting busier. The Northern Sea Route running along the coast of Russia, for example, provides a shortcut for cargo ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, reducing the distance compared with the Suez Canal route by about 40 per cent. As the ice cap thins, the Arctic route is becoming increasingly viable: a record high of almost ten million tonnes of cargo travelled that way in 2017. But although the route isn’t frozen solid these days, there will still be plenty of …