01 December 2007

Exploring the Arctic In Style--ES Aurora Borealis

“Aurora Borealis is so important for research because, in contrast to previous research icebreakers, it will carry a new deep sea drilling system and will be able to work in the central Arctic Ocean throughout unfavourable seasons under the most extreme weather conditions” Source

This "European Ship" carries 55 megawatts of diesel-electric power, has a strong hull that crushes ice (instead of being crushed), and can stay on station for extended drilling in the middle of strong ice floes.
Aurora Borealis will be the first ever international ship, 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....The ice over the polar seas masks millions of years of the planet’s history: drilling is difficult in freezing conditions. Aurora Borealis will be the world’s first icebreaker that is also a drilling ship. This sets unusual challenges for marine engineers: a vessel poised on top of 5000 metres of drilling rig cannot afford to move very much in any direction. But ice drifts, and currents and winds can alter in moments. So the ship will be designed not just to break the ice as it moves forward and astern, but also to port and starboard.

....Drill cores from the sea floor could answer questions about the geological history of the Arctic ocean, and other instruments will measure the transport of contaminants through the air, water and ice. The vessel could be home to 120 people, more than half of them scientists who need to go to sea to study the ice, the ocean beneath and the history of the deep sea floor.

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. Builders could start assembling the hull in 2012, it could be cruising the oceans from 2014
It seems to me that if the ship's designers and owners had wanted a truly functional polar seas exploration vessel, they would have powered the ship with a nuclear reactor. Nuclear vessels not only have more available power, they have extended operating range and cruise times.

Given the likelihood of huge undiscovered oil and gas deposits beneath the Arctic Ocean ice, such icebreaking exploration drilling rig ships make perfect sense. Russia's insistence on being a part of the Aurora's mission may feel ominous to some who remember the USSR's proprietary attitude toward Europe, but no one has a monopoly on the design of such ships. There is nothing stopping the US, Canada, Norway, or any other interested Arctic community from building their own arctic exploration vessel. And they might do it right--with nuclear power.

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