Icebreaker Ships

Ice is no joke when it comes to travel on the high seas. There are boats that are specifically designed to break-up some pretty remarkable ice.

These ships known as “Icebreakers” have been around for a remarkably long time.  

Icebreaker History

Dr. Stephen Jones wrote in the Journal of Ocean Technology about the history of these fearless vessels. According to Jones, the Hudson River in 1836 had a paddle-powered boat titled the Norwich that was designed to break the ice. But centuries before this, ships in Arctic countries were reinforcing their hulls and doing their best to prepare for some light ice travel. Finland was one of the first countries to utilize icebreaker ships in large numbers. In the late 1800s and into the early 20th century during the industrial revolution as shipbuilding expanded, more icebreakers were seen on the water. The bow of these ships is designed using a great deal of math to arrive at a result that will break the ice without penetrating the hull of the ship. Large cruise liners line the famous Titanic demonstrate how ice can easily puncture and quickly sink even the largest and sturdiest of ships. Through the mid to latter part of the 20th century, advancements in diesel engines created opportunities to build more powerful ships capable of breaking thicker ice even faster. 

The Importance of Breaking the Ice

Ice is a huge hazard in the polar regions. The North Atlantic, as well as other Arctic waterways, have a great deal of boat traffic. Historically, the transportation of goods, patrolling the coastlines for defense, as well as transporting people have been key in this region. Solid blocks of ice created barriers where a clear passage was needed for other boat traffic. Even today, icebreaking is absolutely necessary for commerce as well as defense. According to Sabrina Shankman with InsideClimate News and published via, the United States Coast Guard only has two, very aging icebreakers. There are serious demands to add ships to the fleet with heavy icebreaking capabilities. This is necessary for a number of reasons, including search and rescue, environmental disaster clean-up and defense. 

Different Vessels

Today, there are many different types of icebreakers. As seen in this YouTube video on the Top Fives channel, there are various types of icebreakers that can meet a variety of needs. Some icebreakers are smaller and used to clear channels and smaller waterways for commercial traffic. They are used to maintain these waterways, keeping them clear of ice for other ships. Russia is the only country in the world to use icebreakers with nuclear reactors. Kyle Mizokami in Popular Mechanics writes about the new Russian ship the Ural, and its ability to break through ice ten feet thick. With warming Arctic temperatures, areas that have been impenetrable are now possible to navigate. Russia is using its nuclear icebreakers to try to control this region. 

The Future of Icebreakers

It’s pretty clear that as polar areas continue to warm, there will be an increased demand to navigate those waters. Both governmental and private interests will be seeking to get their feet in the doorway. This will continue to require more ships with icebreaking capabilities. Not only the deep icebreakers, but icebreakers of all sizes and abilities will continue to see a strong workload for the foreseeable future. These ships have come a long way in the last few hundred years and are truly a sight to behold. Watching the beautiful dance between sheer size and strength, mixed with the power of geometry and physics that is evidenced in the design is truly a sight to behold.