European Icebreaker ship may revolutionise ocean science

December 2: European researchers are developing an unusual international ship with the ability to break the ice as it moves forward and astern and to port and starboard.

The project was unveiled at the ESF Science Policy Conference recently.

Aurora Borealis will be able to drill a hole 1,000 metres deep into the seabed while floating above 5,000 metres of ocean, and to generate 55 megawatts of power.

It is the brainchild of the European Science Federation, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Maritime Research in Germany and the Germany Federal Ministry of Research and Education.

Russia has announced that it will be a partner in launching this state-of-the-art research vessel. Other European nations are expected to join the project soon.

The project, however, requires the solution to a legal issue.

“We do not have a European flag at the moment so one nation has to be responsible. And if it is internationally owned, you can imagine the difficulty,” said Nicole Biebow, manager of the project, and a scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

“We have to agree where this ship should have its home port. And what happens if there is an accident? Who is responsible if you have an oil spill on the ice, for instance?” Biebow added.

The ice over the polar seas masks millions of years of the planet’s history, and drilling is difficult in freezing conditions. Aurora Borealis will be the world’s first icebreaker that is also a drilling ship.

“We had some early ice tanks tests and they came up with a design that is able to break ice sideways,” said Paul Egerton, head of the European Polar Board within the European Science Federation.

“As the ice continually presses against the side of the ship, the pieces of ice go underneath the hull and are washed away by the propulsion system. There is also a kind of damping system so the ship can raise itself up and down vertically to break the ice. It has a propeller that can turn 360 degrees, linked to satellite navigation. A lot of the cruise ships now have this so they can navigate in a very small area. But the propeller also has to break ice: it has to be strengthened,” he added.

The diesel-electric ship will not only be the floating equivalent of a 55 megawatt power station, but it will also be an intellectual powerhouse. It will probe the role of polar waters in global climate change.

While drill cores from the sea floor will be used to answer questions about the geological history of the Arctic ocean, other instruments will measure the transport of contaminants through the air, water and ice.

The vessel could be home to 120 people. It will be equipped with two “moon pools” in the bottom of the hull to give direct access to the open water beneath the ice, so that drillers can work in freezing conditions and biologists can launch underwater vehicles to study the mysterious processes that trigger an explosion of life in the polar seas every spring.

The design and preparation of Aurora Borealis will continue until 2011. The builders may start assembling the hull in 2012.

The vessel may be cruising the oceans from 2014, and will probably continue answering some of the great questions of ocean science for the next 40 years. (ANI)