Great Lakes ice causes delays for shippers

An Alpena cement company that ships by Great Lakes freighter largely escaped the troubles faced by shippers trying to navigate the ice-covered waters.

Mark Gill, United States Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie director of vessel traffic services, said this winter’s ice accumulation thus far is the most in 25 years, according to U.S. and Canadian ice services. And it set in quick: the Coast Guard has been breaking it since Dec. 6.

“It’s the earliest the U.S. Coast Guard has broken ice in its recorded history here, so we’ve been challenged right out the gate,” he said.

There’s plenty out there, with 88.4 percent of the lakes covered with ice as of Feb. 12, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Coast Guard crews could still be cutting through it after Memorial Day, Gill said.

The Coast Guard works in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard to keep Great Lakes shippers moving, Gill said. Activity has died down since the Soo Locks closed on Jan. 16, but there are still a few freighters plying the waters between Escanaba and the Chicago area. The two coast guards used eight boats to put in 3,000 hours of ice breaking in 44 days.

“Usually the average ice breaking for the entire season is 3,500 ice breaking hours,” he said. “We’re only one-third of the way through the season and we’ve already put in more time in the ice.”

Great Lakes ice got an early start thanks to cold temperatures in the fall and early winter, George Leshkevich, National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory physical scientist, said. Reports of ice in bays and harbors came in as early as the end of November.

“With that first arctic vortex that came down with extremely cold temperatures, the ice kept building,” he said, adding the cold temperatures haven’t relented since then except for a few days in January.

While there’s more ice than last year, the Great Lakes were 94.7 percent covered in 1979, Leshkevich said.

“We’re getting there, but we’ll see what happens for the remainder of the season,” he said.

All this ice and cold made for headaches for shippers. The Coast Guard focuses its efforts on the main thoroughfares, like the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Mary’s River. All have been impacted by ice this year. At one point, traffic in the St. Mary’s River was cut down to one-way.

It all added up to delays, which cut into shipping company profits. A freighter hauling ore from Duluth, Minn., to Gary, Ind., and back can typically make the trip in three days, Gill said. In late December and early January, it took nine to 10 days.

“If normally in a nine-day period you’re getting three trips and you’re only getting one, that expense and not getting a return on the delivery, that has an economic impact onto itself,” he said.

Glen Nekvasil, Lake Carriers’ Association vice president, agreed. The US-flagged freighters the association represents carried 4 million tons of iron ore in December 2013, 21 percent less compared to the same month in 2012. This wasn’t because of lower demand but the effects of the weather.

“It wasn’t just an issue of harbors and connecting channels being iced over,” he said. “It was also an issue of cold weather affecting loading equipment. There were lots of delays at the docks.”

It’s likely shippers will have to play catch-up in the spring to move the cargo they couldn’t in December and January, Nekvasil said.

Lafarge’s Alpena plant didn’t ship any cement by boat in January, but this had more to do with weather in November than ice two months later, Plant Manager Paul Rogers said. The 2013 construction season had a strong end after getting off to a slow and soggy start. When the weather turned in November, Lafarge started filling up its storage terminals around the Great Lakes.

“We started filling those up earlier than we normally do, just because those (construction) jobs didn’t finish,” he said. “The flip side of that is, it makes me really optimistic for 2014. Those jobs still have to be finished, and there’s even more work on the books for those people. I’m optimistic that 2014 can be a real strong year for Lafarge.”

Lafarge opted to lay up its boats early once its storage system was filled, Rogers said. The plant is still shipping by truck and rail. By laying up early, the company managed to avoid ice issues for the most part, but a Lower Lakes Towing-owned freighter still needed some help getting into the docks when it made two trips in January. It brought in loads of fuel and iron, with help from Malcolm Marine’s tug Manitou to break a path in the ice.

Malcolm typically helps break ice for boats coming to Lafarge, Rogers said, but had to do so a few weeks earlier than normal.

While the cold hasn’t impacted Lafarge’s shipping greatly, it has affected the plant in other ways.

“We’ve had more trouble in the plant itself, just dealing with a frozen plant,” he said.

Much of the Alpena plant is outdoors, and the relentless below-freezing temperatures can make for operational and worker safety challenges, Rogers said.

To see daily ice conditions on the Great Lakes, visit the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.