Today, most icebreakers are needed to keep trade routes open where there are either seasonal or permanent ice conditions. While the merchant vessels calling ports in these regions are strengthened for navigation in ice, they are usually not powerful enough to manage the ice by themselves. For this reason, in the Baltic Sea, the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and along the Northern Sea Route, the main function of icebreakers is to escort convoys of one or more ships safely through ice-filled waters. When a ship becomes immobilized by ice, the icebreaker has to free it by breaking the ice surrounding the ship and, if necessary, open a safe passage through the ice field. In difficult ice conditions, the icebreaker can also tow the weakest ships.
Some icebreakers are also used to support scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic. In addition to icebreaking capability, the ships need to have reasonably good open-water characteristics for transit to and from the polar regions, facilities and accommodation for the scientific personnel, and cargo capacity for supplying research stations on the shore. Countries such as Argentina and South Africa, which do not require icebreakers in domestic waters, have research icebreakers for carrying out studies in the polar regions.
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