Coast Guard Finally Ends Ice Breaking Operations On Great Lakes

Lingering Ice Cover Cut Great Lakes Shipping For April In Half

Above, a cutter making its way through the Soo Locks in March. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard (CC-BY-NC-ND).

With ice conditions on the Great Lakes looking substantially improved, U.S. Coast Guard ships are finally shutting down ice breaking operations on Thursday.

Lingering ice cover was responsible for cutting Great Lakes U.S.-flagged shipping cargo in half last month. Iron ore cargo was down 52 percent, coal was down 60 percent, and limestone was down 36 percent compared to one year ago in April. No stone was shipped at all.

Three ships were damaged from the ice, and several Coast Guard ice breakers reported hull or rudder damage.

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Lake Carriers Association vice president Glen Nekvasil has high praise for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards for helping ships navigate the rough conditions. “These were very trying circumstances,”said Nekvasil. “Their vessels incurred some damage too, but their crews did a great job for us.”

Nekvasil says it will be tough to make up for the lost trips over the rest of the season.

“Sometimes nature wins,” he said. “That was kind of the case in March and April, that’s for sure.”

Coast Guard ice breaking director Mark Gil says says cutters tripled their normal ice breaking hours to 12,000 among 12 cutters. He says even veteran ship captains were impressed by the amount of ice cover on the lake.

“Especially out on the commercial lakers — they’re telling tales,” he said. “(It’s) certainly the most ice any of them have seen since the ’70s.”

Gil says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists took pictures of the ice in late March that were stunning. “There’s some ice formations out there that rival some things that occur in the Arctic,” he said. “Frozen waves, mid-stream — If you can imagine a wave that’s standing still mid-formation, it’s remarkable.”