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Great Lakes icebreaking is a team effort

Jan 28, 2018 09:11AM ● Published by Editor

By Rear Admiral Joanna M. Nunan - Commander, Ninth Coast Guard District - January 27, 2018 

 The Ninth District is proud to be part of the team effort responding to one of the most severe December and January icebreaking operations in the past 25 years. Working with the Canadian Coast Guard and members of the shipping industry throughout the region, our cutters have logged thousands of hours and miles to keep commerce moving.

Over 200 million tons of cargo is shipped annually on the Great Lakes between its 85 ports. St. Clair and Detroit River systems see an average of 65 million tons of cargo transit annually, generating $1.83 billion for the economy and supporting 41,000 jobs in the area.

The average cost savings of shipping on the Great Lakes was $14.80 per ton when compared to other modes. A single 1000-foot Laker can haul about 70,000 tons of cargo the equivalent to 700 railroad car trains. A ship can travel 607 miles on one gallon of fuel per ton of cargo significantly farther than trains and trucks can travel per gallon.

By mid-January the Great Lakes were 35.5% covered in ice, twice the average at this point in the year.

The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have developed a broad icebreaking strategy which is reviewed at a yearly conference. During the winter, both agencies participate in daily “ice calls,” conference calls which set the daily icebreaking priorities. It is here that both U.S. and Canadian assets are allocated based upon information from industry regarding the plans for commercial traffic as well as local conditions. 

The bulk of icebreaking operations focus on facilitating navigation; however, exceptions to the routine are emergency missions to assist in search and rescue or break up river ice jams that can create dangerous flooding. 

The Great Lakes are divided into two tactical ice breaking commands. Operation Taconite, based in Sault Ste. Marie, encompasses Lake Superior, the Saint Marys River, the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan, and northern Lake Huron. Operation Coal Shovel, based in Detroit, encompasses southern Lake Huron, the St. Clair and Detroit River systems, and Lake Erie.

The deep freeze that started in December 2017 created heavy, rapidly forming ice, which slowed shipping substantially. Both the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards found their hands full, and by mid-January had already assisted 358 vessels and responded to:

‒ 5 urgent vessel requests

‒ 3 exigent community service requests for flooding control

‒ 216 navigation assistance requests

In the midst of these challenges, one of our nine U.S Coast Guard icebreaking cutters was sidelined for a month of engine work. We had already started the season with another ship at the U.S. Coast Guard shipyard in Baltimore for an overhaul. Still, according to our own metrics, the entire team has performed well: the Tier One waterway availability for Operation Taconite has been 92.5%. For Operation Coal Shovel it’s been 80.2%.

In recent days, January has warmed slightly and the ice coverage is down to 20%, but issues remain in certain areas. We could have another deep freeze at a moment’s notice, but our U.S. and Canadian team stands ready to face the challenges that remain in 2018.

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Lake Superior Ice Coverage Map. Click on map to enlarge. [GLERL Ice Concentration for Lake Superior]

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