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International Ice Patrol

From the earliest journeys into the North Atlantic, icebergs have threatened vessels. A review of the history of navigation prior to the turn of the century shows an impressive number of casualties occurred in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. For example, the LADY OF THE LAKE sank in 1833 with a loss of 265. Between 1882 and 1890, 14 vessels were lost and 40 seriously damaged due to ice. This does not include the large number of whaling and fishing vessels lost or damaged by ice. It took one of the greatest marine disasters of all times to arouse public demand for international cooperative action to deal with this marine hazard. This disaster, the sinking of the RMS TITANIC on April 15, 1912, was the prime impetus for the establishment of the International Ice Patrol.

On her maiden voyage from Southhampton, England bound for New York, the TITANIC collided with an iceberg just south of the tail of the Grand Banks and sank within two and a half hours. Although the night was clear and seas were calm, the loss of life was enormous with more than 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers and crew perishing. The TITANIC, brand new flagship of the White Star Line, was the largest passenger liner of its time displacing 66,000 tons and capable of sustained speed in excess of 22 knots. The vessel had been built with the latest safety design, featuring compartmentation and such innovations as automatically closing water tight doors. It is ironic that publicity regarding these features had given it the reputation of being unsinkable.

Loss of the TITANIC gripped the world with a chilling awareness of an iceberg's potential for tragedy. The sheer dimensions of the TITANIC disaster created sufficient public reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to prod reluctant governments into action, producing the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 1914. The degree of international cooperation required to produce such an unprecedented document was truly remarkable and probably could not have been achieved during this period without the catalyst provided by this incident.

After the TITANIC disaster, the U.S. Navy assigned the Scout Cruisers CHESTER and BIRMINGHAM to patrol the Grand Banks for the remainder of 1912. In 1913, the Navy could not spare ships for this purpose, so the Revenue Cutter Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) assumed responsibility, assigning the Cutters SENECA and MIAMI to conduct the patrol.

At the first International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea, which was convened in London on November 12, 1913, the subject of patrolling the ice regions was thoroughly discussed. The convention signed on January 30, 1914, by the representatives of the world's various maritime powers, provided for the inauguration of an international derelict-destruction, ice observation, and ice patrol service, consisting of vessels, which should patrol the ice regions during the season of iceberg danger and attempt to keep the trans-Atlantic lanes clear of derelicts during the remainder of the year. Due primarily to the experience gained in 1912 and 1913, the United States Government was invited to undertake the management of the triple service, the expense to be defrayed by the 13 nations interested in trans-Atlantic navigation.

As the convention, when ratified, would not go into effect until July 1, 1915, the government of Great Britain on behalf of the several nations interested, made inquiry on January 31, 1914 as the whether the United States would undertake the patrol at once under the same mutual obligations as provided in the convention. The proposition was favorably considered by the President, and on February 7, 1914, he directed that the (then) Revenue Cutter Service begin as early as possible in that month, the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service. Each year since then, with exception of the wartime years, a patrol has been maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The second International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London on April 16, 1929. Eighteen nations participated, all of which signed the final act on May 31, 1929. Because of the fear in the United States Senate as a result of ambiguities in Article 54 dealing with control, the 1929 convention was not ratified by the United States until August 7, 1936, and even then the ratification was accompanied by three reservations. At the same time, Congress enacted legislation on June 25, 1936, formally requiring the Commandant of the Coast Guard to administer the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service (Chap. 807, para. 2 49 USC 1922) and describing in general fashion the manner in which this service was to be performed. With only minor changes, this remains today as the basic Coast Guard authority to operated the International Ice Patrol. Since 1929, there have been three SOLAS conventions (1948, 1960 & 1974). None of these have recommended any basic change affecting the Ice Patrol.

The thirteen nations signatory to the 1915 SOLAS Convention agreed to share costs in accordance with a formula approximating their degree of individual benefit. This sharing arrangement has been updated over the years as shipping patterns changed and as additional nations acceded to the treaty. Financial relations are handled by the Department of State which does the actual billing of each nation for its share of the cost. In the early days this share was a fixed percentage changed infrequently by treaty revision. In recent years, the cost share has been based on each participating nations percentage of the total cargo tonnage transiting the patrol area during the ice season.

That the Ice Patrol has maintained broad-based international support for over seven decades despite changing operational and technological factors is a tribute to the soundness of the basic concept. As of 1993 the governments contributing to the Ice Patrol included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Poland, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States of America.

From its inception until the beginning of World War II, the Ice Patrol was conducted from two surface patrol cutters alternating surveillance patrols of the southern ice limits. In 1931 and thereafter a third ship was assigned to Ice Patrol to perform oceanographic observations in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. After World War II, aerial surveillance became the primary ice reconnaissance method with surface patrols phased out except during unusually heavy ice years or extended periods of reduced visibility. Use of the oceanographic vessel continued until 1982, when the Coast Guard's sole remaining oceanographic ship, USCGC EVERGREEN, was converted to a medium endurance cutter. The aircraft has distinct advantages for ice reconnaissance providing much greater coverage in a relatively short period of time.

From 1946 until 1966, the Ice Patrol offices, operations center and reconnaissance aircraft were based at the Coast Guard Air Detachment Argentia, Newfoundland during the ice season.

Due to changing operational commitments and financial constraints the Coast Guard Argentia Air Detachment closed in 1966. Ice Patrol headquarters and operations center moved to Governors Island, New York where they remained until October 1983. Today the International Ice Patrol is located at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton, Connecticut. The ice reconnaissance detachment continued to work out of Argentia until 1971 when it moved to Canadian Forces Base at Summerside, Prince Edward Island. In 1973, this detachment, usually comprised of 11 aircrew and 4 ice observers flying in a HC-130 aircraft, moved to St. John's Newfoundland to be closer to the patrol area. The detachment relocated to Gander, Newfoundland in 1982, but in 1989, the detachment moved back to St. John's, Newfoundland.  

Last Modified 1/12/2016