The Great Lakes have seen historic winters during the last two years, with prolonged arctic-like weather. While above-average snowfall and ice-coverage amounts are generally good for lake levels, unremitting cold and winds have produced ice conditions not present on the Lakes since the mid-1990s.
The burst of cold and snow that hit the Great Lakes in October 2013 and November 2014 was indeed a harbinger of things to come for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards. The ice generated during the early onset of extreme cold weather in November 2013 and January 2015 challenged both countries’ cutters and aids to navigation teams as they hurried to replace traditional buoys with sturdier winter markers. Once that work was complete, the buoy tenders shifted their mission focus to ice breaking.
The bi-national ice-breaking operation for Lakes Michigan and Superior, the Straits of Mackinac and the Sault St. Marie area is known as Operation Taconite. Operation Coal Shovel manages ice breaking operations in Lakes Huron and Erie, including the connecting Detroit and St. Clair rivers, as well as Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Canadian Coast Guard has established an ice operations center in Sarnia, Ontario, known as Ice Sarnia. Ice Sarnia operates in concert with the U.S. Coast Guard Ice Navigation Center. Between the two, they coordinate ice breaking operations in the Great Lakes under a treaty called the Canada/United States Icebreaking Agreement for the Great Lakes.
The Coast Guards also work closely with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. and the U.S. Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. in planning the spring ice breaking operations on the Seaway and the Great Lakes.
During the last two winters, rapid ice growth in the northern reaches of the Great Lakes immediately impacted shipping traffic as the “salties” hurried to complete their last voyage and exit the lakes prior to the closure of the Seaway. The U.S. and Canadian lakers struggled to complete their last runs before the Soo Locks closed in mid-January 2015, ending the shipping season for a large portion of the two countries’ domestic fleets. In addition to the scheduled dry dock and maintenance planned for the laid-up vessels, several lakers have had to repair hull damage incurred while transiting through the ice during the past couple of winters.
Despite the moniker of “closed season,” some vessels continue to operate through the winter months moving critical road salt, heating oil and coal throughout the region. These movements usually require escorts for a good portion of their voyages. Direct assists to break out ice-locked ships are commonplace.
The last two winters have caused the Great Lakes to nearly freeze over --- more than 90 percent during the winter of 2013-14 and more than 85 percent this winter. Only Lake Ontario put up any noteworthy resistance.
Needless to say, this year’s spring breakout will be challenging for the U.S., Canadian and foreign-flag shipping industry, as well as businesses that depend on the delivery of raw materials and other cargoes. Absent an extended warming period, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards will be faced with extremely challenging conditions well above those of the recent past.
In anticipation of severe conditions, multiple cutters will likely be needed to break out and maintain the critical waterways and in some cases escort vessels across frozen parts of the lakes. As a result, there will likely be more convoys. In addition, many harbor areas and connecting waterways normally broken out by commercial ice breakers may prove to be too difficult for them this year, which may increase the Coast Guards’ workload.
In addition to ice breaking, the thaw that comes with warmer weather is likely to increase the threat of coastal flooding. Flooding events place an additional demand on the ice breaking fleet and add a flood relief mission that impacts the maritime transportation system.
Another consequence of an extended and difficult ice season will be the delay in restoring the aids to navigation that were removed in the fall. It’s expected that multi-mission vessels will be breaking ice well into April, significantly later than they ordinarily shift over to their buoy-tending roles.
In light of all of this, the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards ask for patience and cooperation this spring as crews work as hard and quickly as possible to systematically open the waterways that make up the Great Lakes’ maritime transportation system.