Ice on Great Lakes good for water, bad for shipping

The amount of the ice on the Great Lakes so far this season exceeds the long-term average for maximum coverage.

And plenty of winter remains.

About 70.7% of the lakes were covered in ice this week, up from 60.1% last week and a maximum ice of 38.4% in the same period of 2013 and 12.9% in 2012.

WATCH: Lake Michigan ice movement, measurement is mesmerizing

This year’s total is closer to the amount last seen in 2009. The extensive amount of ice could mean a slow start to the 2014 shipping season in March.

“Because we have so much ice, … we’re going to have to have some ice-breaking work just to move some ships around before we get the winds and weather to move the ice and get it away from the system, ” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services with the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. “Everybody wants to go, and everybody is laid up in different places.”

Large chunks of the Great Lakes fleet spend the winter in shipyards, like Bay Shipbuilding Co. in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., for repair and renovation.

“We’re going to have to go from port to port and form convoy lines to get everyone from these satellite locations into the main shipping lanes,” Gill said. “That takes time, and time is money.”

The Coast Guard is meeting with American and Canadian shipping officials to talk about plans for spring, he said.

“It’s going to be a slow, deliberate, move,” he said about the start of the season. “We still have eight weeks of cold weather. … If we continue on the track we are, we’re going to continue to make ice and we’re going to have more ice than we have icebreakers to deal with it.”

The Coast Guard has nine ships on the lakes to combat the ice. Canada operates a pair of ice-breaking vessels.

The shipping season usually gets into full swing with the opening of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which is scheduled for March 25.

While this year’s ice coverage exceeds recent years, it’s still a long way from the 94.7% in the winter of 1979, according to figures from Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. The lab is operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The long-term average for maximum ice coverage is about 51%. Maximum ice coverage usually occurs in February and into early March.

“We had the first polar vortex, … and the ice cover on the lakes just took off,” said George Leshkevich, scientist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “Lake Erie is about 96% ice covered now.”

It is the most shallow of the lakes. Lake Superior is the deepest but also is the farthest north.

Last week, Lake Superior was about 69% ice covered; Lake Michigan 46% covered; Lake Huron 71% covered; and Lake Ontario about 26% covered.

“Compared to winters in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s not terribly anomalous,” Leshkevich said. “It’s just that we haven’t seen this much ice in the past two to three years, so when we get it it seems like a lot. It depends on which years you are comparing it to.”

It’s still too early to tell what, if any, effect the amount of ice now on the lakes will have on next month’s shipping season start.

“It depends on if we continue with the cold temperatures. The winds can have a great effect on the ice cover as well, breaking it up and moving it around,” Leshkevich said. “If it continues like this, it could pose some serious problems at the start of the season. But it’s very much dependent on the weather conditions.”

Cold temperatures in the fall and early winter led to some early formation of ice on the lakes, which cut into the amount of cargo moving via ship. The Port of Green Bay ended operations a little earlier than normal.

“The ice and the weather really took a chunk out of iron ore and western coal” shipments during late-season shipping, said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Ohio-based Lake Carriers’ Association. “Cargo that was booked to move in December and January didn’t get loaded. If people can get going early, they will want to.”

Ships move hundreds of tons of cargo — including iron ore, coal and grain — on the five lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway that connects the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

The industry can’t do much about the ice. Nekvasil said this winter points to the importance of the fleet of nine ice breaking vessels that the Coast Guard operates around the lakes.

“Without good ice-breaking resources, cargo does not move,” he said.

A number of the ships are expected to undergo upgrades to extend the life of the vessels another 30 years. All of the ships are expected to be upgraded by 2020.

Gannett News Service

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