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What are icebreakers?

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Mattis, age 10, asks:
Ships that can sail in the icy polar regions have to be specially equipped? Mattis, 10, has an idea: What are icebreakers? he wants to know.

IcebreakerIcebreakers have a special bow that pushes the ice floes downwards instead of to the side.Source © Sergey Dzjuba, shutterstock

Icebreakers are now highly technical special ships built for a wide range of applications. In winter, for example, they are responsible not only for maintaining shipping traffic on the sea, but also on inland waterways such as the Oder River, the Elbe River, and on a wide variety of canals.

Large nuclear-powered Russian icebreakers are now frequently used as cruise ships in the polar regions. Research vessels require a special design. On the one hand, they must fulfill all icebreaker functions, but they must also be equipped for a wide variety of research tasks in the two polar regions.

On the way to the penguins and polar bears

As you probably know, penguins and polar bears can only meet in the zoo, because penguins are found at the South Pole, while polar bears are found at the North Pole. However, the icebreaking research and supply ship Polarstern connects both poles on its voyages. It is currently the most powerful polar research vessel in the world and can even sail into the pack ice zone. It is not only used for research purposes, but also supplies stations in Antarctica and Spitsbergen, for example.

Indented bow

The design of its bow is typical of icebreakers. The bow is not only slanted, but also slightly indented (= concave) so that the ship does not simply hit the ice, but can push itself properly onto the ice layer. When the ship sails over ice floes, they are pushed away by the bow not to the side, but downwards.

The “Polarstern” belongs to the German Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology. The Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven is the operator of the ship.

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