AskDefine | Define icebreaker

Dictionary Definition



1 a ship with a reinforced bow to break up ice and keep channels open for navigation [syn: iceboat]
2 a beginning that relaxes a tense or formal atmosphere; "he told jokes as an icebreaker"

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


  • (US) /ˈaɪsˌbreɪkər/


  1. A ship designed to break through ice so that it, or other ships coming behind, can navigate on frozen seas.
    The steel hulls of ice-breakers are much thicker than those of standard vessels.
    • 2005: My father's Bonneville was cutting its way toward us like an icebreaker moving through my whole state of consciousness. — Martin Torgoff, Can't Find My Way Home (Simon & Schuster 2005, p. 11)
  2. A game, activity, humourous anecdote, etc., designed to relax a group of people to help them get to know each other.
    The new college hallmates were awkward with each other at first, but after a game of charades as an icebreaker, they were laughing like old friends.


a ship designed to break through ice
game, anecdote, or other activity to help introduce people

Related terms

Extensive Definition

An icebreaker is a special purpose ship or boat designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters. Although the term usually refers to icebreaking ships, it can also refer to smaller vessels (e.g., icebreaking boats that were used on the Canals of Great Britain in the days of commercial carrying).
For a ship to be considered an icebreaker it requires three components: a strengthened hull, an ice-clearing shape, and the power to push through, none of which are possessed by most normal ships.
To pass through ice-covered water, an icebreaker uses its great momentum and power to drive its bow up onto the ice, breaking the ice under the immense weight of the ship. Because a buildup of broken ice in front of a ship can slow it down much more than the breaking of the ice itself, the speed of the ship is increased by having a specially designed hull to direct the broken ice around or under the vessel . The external components of the ship's propulsion system (propellers, propeller shafts, etc.) are at even greater risk of damage than the vessel's hull, so the ability for an icebreaker to propel itself onto the ice, break it, and successfully clear the debris from its path is essential for its safety.


Even in the earliest days of polar exploration, ice-strengthened ships were used. These were originally wooden and based on existing designs, but reinforced, particularly around the waterline with double planking to the hull and strengthening cross members inside the ship. Bands of iron were wrapped around the outside. Sometimes metal sheeting was placed at the bows, stern and along the keel. Such strengthening was designed to help the ship push through ice and also to protect the ship in case it was "nipped" by the ice. Nipping occurs when ice floes around a ship are pushed against the ship trapping it as if in a vise and causing damage. This vice-like action is caused by the force of winds and tides on ice formations. Although such wind and tidal forces may be exerted many miles away, the ice transmits the force.
The first known steam-powered icebreaker was the City Ice Boat No. 1, built by the city of Philadelphia in 1837. She was a wooden paddle steamer intended to break ice in the harbor. The first European steam-powered icebreakers were the Russian Pilot (1864) and the German Eisbrecher I (1871).
At the beginning of the 20th century several countries began to operate purpose-built icebreakers. Most were coastal icebreakers, but Russia and later the Soviet Union also built several oceangoing icebreakers of around 10,000 tonnes displacement. Several technological advances were introduced over the years, but it was not until the introduction of nuclear power in the Soviet icebreaker Lenin in 1959 that icebreakers developed their full potential.

Function of icebreakers

Icebreakers are needed to keep trade routes open where there are either seasonal or permanent ice conditions. Icebreakers are expensive to build and very expensive to run, whether the icebreaker is powered by gas turbines, diesel-electric powerplant or nuclear energy. They are uncomfortable to travel in on the open sea: almost all of them have thick, rounded keels, and with no protuberances for stability, they can roll even in light seas. They are also uncomfortable to travel in when breaking through continuous thick ice due to constant motion, noise, and vibration.
A modern icebreaker typically has shielded propellers both at the bow and at the stern, as well as side thrusters; pumps to move water ballast from side-to-side; and holes on the hull below the waterline to eject air bubbles, all designed to allow an icebreaker stuck amidst thick ice to break free. Many icebreakers also carry aircraft (formerly seaplanes but now helicopters) to assist in reconnaissance and liaison.

Design and construction

Icebreakers are constructed with a double hull and watertight compartments in case of a breach. The ship's hull is thicker than normal, especially at the bow, stern, and waterline, using special steel that has optimum performance at low temperatures. The thicker steel at the waterline typically extends about 1 m above and below the waterline, and is reinforced with extra internal ribbing, sometimes twice the ribbing of a normal ship. The bow is rounded rather than pointed, allowing the vessel to ride up over the ice, breaking it with the weight of the vessel. The hull has no appendages likely to be damaged by the ice, and the rudder and propeller are protected by the shape of the hull. The propeller blades are strengthened, and the vessel has the ability to inspect and replace blades while at sea.

Recent advances

The optimal shape for moving through ice makes icebreakers uncomfortable in open water and gives them poor fuel efficiency.
Icebreakers tend to roll side to side to the discomfort of the crew. Some new icebreakers such as the USCGC Healy make use of anti-roll tanks. Anti-roll tanks use computer controlled pumps to rapidly shift ballast water side-to-side to keep the vessel upright.
A greater concern is how well a ship cuts through waves. The ability of a ship to cut through waves can greatly affect its fuel efficiency and even its safety in a storm. Most ships use a sharp or bulbous bow to cut through waves and help prevent waves from slamming the bow of the ship. However, icebreakers have a round sled-like bow. They tend to slam into waves, which can be risky in high seas.
Recent advances in ship propulsion have produced new experimental icebreakers. Electrically driven propellers are mounted to steerable pods under the ship. These Azimuthing Podded Propulsors, or Azi-pods, improve fuel efficiency, ship steering, ship docking, and remove the need for rudders. Azipods also allow a ship to travel backwards as easily as it travels forwards. The double acting icebreaker is unique because its stern is shaped like an icebreaker's bow. Normally traveling forward, a double acting icebreaker uses a conventional ship bow for a more comfortable ride. When ice is encountered, the ship turns around and travels backwards through the ice. The MT Mastera and MT Tempera are two vessels using this new technology.
In the 1980s hovercraft were shown to be effective as icebreakers on rivers. Instead of displacing or crushing the ice from above, they work by injecting a bubble of air under the ice sheet, causing it to break off and be swept downstream by the current. The purpose is usually not to provide navigation channels but rather to prevent ice dams from forming on bridge structures, thus damaging them and causing local flooding.


External links

icebreaker in Bosnian: Ledolomac
icebreaker in Czech: Ledoborec
icebreaker in Danish: Isbryder
icebreaker in German: Eisbrecher
icebreaker in Modern Greek (1453-): Παγοθραυστικό
icebreaker in Esperanto: Glacirompilo
icebreaker in Spanish: Rompehielos
icebreaker in Estonian: Jäälõhkuja
icebreaker in Finnish: Jäänmurtaja
icebreaker in French: Brise-glace
icebreaker in Galician: Crebaxeos
icebreaker in Hebrew: שוברת קרח
icebreaker in Italian: Rompighiaccio
icebreaker in Japanese: 砕氷船
icebreaker in Lithuanian: Ledlaužis
icebreaker in Latvian: Ledlauzis
icebreaker in Malay (macrolanguage): Kapal pemecah air batu
icebreaker in Dutch: IJsbreker
icebreaker in Norwegian Nynorsk: Isbrytar
icebreaker in Polish: Lodołamacz
icebreaker in Portuguese: Quebra-gelo
icebreaker in Russian: Ледокол
icebreaker in Serbo-Croatian: Ledolomac
icebreaker in Simple English: Icebreaker
icebreaker in Slovenian: Ledolomilec
icebreaker in Swedish: Isbrytare
icebreaker in Turkish: Buzkıran
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