Ice Breakers Needed on Lake Superior to Speed up Start of Shipping Season

Updated: 03/22/2014 1:02 PM

Nasty weather is affecting a lot more than your drive home from work. Record ice levels on the Great Lakes are slowing the start of this year's shipping season.

"They need heavy ice breaking assistance to get through those kinds of ice conditions," said Jim Sharrow with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Some ice on Lake Superior is several feet thick. You can blame our harsh, wicked winter season with at least 60 below-zero days. "Because of the severe ice conditions several fleets have delayed their first sailing until early April," Sharrow said.

Three ships in Duluth are expected to leave for the first time this season, this weekend.

Ice breakers will lead what Sharrow calls "a convoy " all the way to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which opened Tuesday morning.

"The last time I remember having to convoy ships across the lake was back in 1979," Sharrow said.

Maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show 90 percent of Lake Superior is covered with ice this week. That’s down from 95 percent when ice coverage peaked earlier this year.

"This entire portion here is real thick ice," said Sharrow. As the ice starts to melt, ships will try to make up lost time. "The benefit of the ice is that we get higher water levels and they will try to load heavier to their maximum capabilities. They will try to turn those ships quicker. By turn I mean leave Duluth, go to Chicago and get back as quick as possible."

Good news is Port Executive Director Vanta Coda says demand for iron ore, which many of those ships carry, is up. He expects auto production to hit 16 million this year, which is one million more than last.

Sharrow says there are nine U.S. ice breakers out on the Great Lakes right now. Two more from Canada are on their way.

Video courtesy of KSTP sister station WDIO.