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Series 3 - Arctic Icebreakers

Arctic Icebreakers

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With the Arctic said to hold a quarter of the planet's remaining oil reserves, transporting it through ice-bound oceans has never been more important or bigger business. Through four stages of evolution, this programme explains how icebreakers have grown from simple steam-powered work horses to today’s technically advanced behemoths.

In Hamburg harbour in the 1800s, trade was brought to a halt every winter when the ice set in, sometimes grinding business to a halt for nearly two months of the year. Trying to disperse the ice by manual labour proved a fruitless task as the port would quickly freeze over again. Ships with traditional hulls,which were sharp, straight and efficient at cutting through water, had little joy cutting a path through the ice.

In 1871, German engineer Carl Ferdinand Steinhaus came up with away of exerting downward pressure on the ice, a much more effective way of breaking it, rather than trying to slice through it. Steinhaus's ship, the 500-tonne Eisbrecker Eins, is considered the ancestor of all modern icebreakers.

In the 1950s, the Russian coalfields in the north of the country were the energy source for the great industrial heartland. But getting the coal to where it is needed meant using the northern sea route, which is frozen for ten months of the year. To cut through the two-metre thick ice shelf, a more powerful propulsion source was needed than the standard diesel engines. Scientist Anatoly Alexandrov developed uranium as a new fuel source for these icebreakers. The ship he created, the Lenin, was the world’s first nuclear-powered ship and spawned a whole generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Later, in the 1970s, German engineers developed an icebreaker capable of carrying supplies to research bases at the poles. They needed to overcome the incredible force of friction created by the ice as it scrapes its way along the side and underneath the ship.

We also look at the Timofey Guzhenko. At 93,500 tonnes, it is by far the biggest icebreaker working in the Arctic today. It is a 'double acting ship' which can also carry nearly 50,000 tonnes of crude oil. It also has an electromagnetic navigation system that can identify different types of ice to help the captain pick the safest course and keep its position as the champion of the Arctic's icy waters.

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