How does an Ice Breaker Ship Works?

As the world shrinks to a size smaller than we ever imagined, it makes sense to wonder about the technology that makes this possible. Providing access to even the remotest parts of the world, there is technology that is truly breathtaking. Icebreaker ships would definitely fall into that category.

What is icebreaker ship?

Getting to know about this technology can only start with understanding the nature of their genius.

Representation Image - Credits: Hohum/

Representation Image – Credits: Hohum/


Icebreaker ships are a special class of ships that break even thickest of the ice and make some of the most inhospitable paths accessible to the world. These ships have a specialized design that allows them to carry out this particular task. The idea of an ice breaker ship has been around for a very long time. In times as long ago as 1800, an ice breaker ship was known to work. Of course, they were more of boats then. Even today, their basic design remains the same, although the modernization has certainly made them much more efficient.

How does an icebreaker ship work?

The working of icebreaker ships lies in their design that is modified to suit their special purpose.  An icebreaker ship is mostly a mammoth structure, with advantage of weight, size and power. They can glide smoothly over even 3 meter thick ice and crush it making path for other ships to tread. This makes them exceptionally useful piece of machinery in frozen regions of Arctic and Russia. Of course, calling them a ‘piece of machinery’ would be a farce but on fair side, they can be reasonably called quite small as compared to the ships and tankers that carry out the final job of relaying the material back and forth a spot.


Getting back to how does an icebreaker ship works, it is because of their hull design. The hull of an icebreaker ship is not pointed like a normal ship but a more rounded structure. The pointed hull of a normal ship helps it to slice through the waves and reduce friction between ship and water. However, the smoother portion of an icebreaker ship allows it to glide more easily over the thick ice coat, reducing the opposing forces greatly.

As the ship glides over the ice, its weight comes down on the ice sheet, crushing it. Smooth hull design helps push this ice out of the ship’s way, preventing it from entering ship’s parts and causing damage. The double hull structure ensures integrity of the hull even under harshest conditions. The outer hull is reinforced with additional materials and hull polymer paints that provides it more strength and reduces damage due to friction. So the ship moves forwards, the ice is shoved aside and there is a path for other ships to move on to.

Nuclear ice breaker ships

Nuclear ice breaker ships are example of the latest technology that has been brought into the ice breaking industry, making it more suitable for the harsh job that these ships are destined for. Ice breaker ships are employed in jobs that are not exactly cooperative, per se. This makes it a highly cost intensive job, primarily because of the fuel cost.


On average, an ice breaker working in regions like Russian frozen water with 3 meter thick ice would use up more than 100 tons of fuel per day- a massive input even for high return jobs like oil extraction. This is where nuclear powered ships come to rescue. A nuclear powered ship would use less than a pound of uranium under the same conditions, making it a much better fuel option. Also, this eliminates need for fuel refilling which is exactly what is needed in the secluded ice covered regions that these ships operate in. The overall returns from nuclear ice breaker ships easily surpass the initial cost that will go into the building and putting a nuclear reactor in place. This becomes a win-win situation for everyone.

The cons

The slight negative aspect of this design is that it makes ice breaker ships good enough for purpose of ice breaking alone. But they are definitely the best at their job. Their specialized design makes them highly unsuitable for normal waterways. Some modifications in designs have made double acting ship design a possibility.


The double acting ships are provided with propellers that can be turned in all directions, which in backwards direction can generate enough thrust to break ice. However, these are a specialized class of ships. Until they come into use, the icebreaker ships remain the most viable option for ice breaking.

References , coolantarctica

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  1. Dave says

    Nick, my 9 year old son, had a question about how icebreakers work, and so we found this article. He liked the picture of the ship with the shark’s mouth. Good, simple explanation of how these ships work! Thanks!

  2. Hasan says

    The old sailing ships had rounded bottoms/keels, so why is this now a disadvantage in open water for icebreakers.

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