Light on lake ice, Great Lakes shipping season underway
But there's still plenty of ice in the harbors.
DULUTH — Little ice on the Great Lakes will give an early-season boost to this week's start of the shipping season.
The St. Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean opened Wednesday and the Soo Locks connecting Lake Superior with the other Great Lakes will open at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
And with current ice coverage of just 4.9% across the Great Lakes compared to 25% at this time last year, ships face fewer frozen obstacles trying to reach the lock systems.
Brendan O'Connor, chief operating officer of the Interlake Steamship Co., spoke to the News Tribune on Thursday morning just a few minutes after Interlake's 826-foot-long Lee A. Tregurtha became the first ship of the season to leave the Port of Duluth-Superior.
"We're thrilled," O'Connor said of the lack of ice. "This is not what I would call a typical fit-out, and operating conditions are more favorable than ordinarily expected at the earliest part of the season."
He said all 10 of the ships in Interlake's fleet will be sailing soon.
A warming climate has led to less ice on the Great Lakes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average annual ice cover on the lakes has already diminished by 22% since 1970. Lake Superior's average ice cover declined from nearly 80% in 1973 to just over 40% by 2020, the News Tribune has previously reported.
Still, there have been recent outliers, like in 2014, when Lake Superior froze over.
That can cause trouble for the shipping industry. In 2015, 18 vessels had to wait in Whitefish Bay as icebreakers broke up ice that was 8 feet thick in places.
Scenes of a line of ships stuck in lake ice are unlikely this year. And the harbors, slips and docks still have plenty of ice.
"Anyplace the water isn't moving, the ice can get pretty thick," said Mike Ojard, owner of Heritage Marine, who had to break his tugboat out of 2.5 feet of ice Wednesday, the first day of ice-breaking for his crew.
He estimates there is about a foot of ice out in the channel.
While private tugboat companies like Heritage Marine and Great Lakes Towing Co. are responsible for breaking ice out of the slips and docks, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spar keeps the main channel open.
The Spar started icebreaking operations earlier this month, but was recently laid up for repairs, prompting the Coast Guard to send its Mackinaw icebreaker, Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said in a news conference Thursday morning.
By Thursday afternoon, however, the Spar returned to "fully mission-capable status and will continue work in the vicinity of Duluth," according to Jayson Hron, Port Authority spokesperson.
The Mackinaw, which had crossed much of Lake Superior on its way to Duluth, will return to working in Whitefish Bay near the Soo Locks.
Currently, the Mackinaw is the only "heavy icebreaker" on the Great Lakes, and its home port is in Cheboygan, Michigan on Lake Huron.
DeLuca said the Spar's temporary layup highlighted the need "for new icebreaking capacity, capability throughout the Great Lakes system."
The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law late last year authorizes $350 million for another heavy icebreaker for the Great Lakes.
Years with significant lake ice often renew calls for an additional icebreaker as ships get stuck or the start of the shipping season is delayed. A single-day delay is estimated to cost $500,000 per vessel, the News Tribune reported in 2019.
But delays because of ice are less likely this year.
"Last year ... peak ice was really late, so that heavy ice cover really impeded traffic flow, and the beginning of the season was definitely affected by that," DeLuca said. "This year, we have the reverse situation."
Port, shipping company expect strong year
DeLuca said she's excited for the season to start and expects a strong year. "In terms of the entire port, it should be a pretty decent year," she said.
Iron ore pellets remain the main cargo that moves out of the port, and signs are that it will remain strong as all Iron Range mines are expected to be up and running.
Shipments of wind turbines and other equipment moving through the port are unlikely to surpass records set in 2019 and 2020, but DeLuca said she expects a strong season with more cargo expected, but not yet "on the books."
It's unclear how grain, which had its worst year in more than 130 years last season, will perform, DeLuca said.
O'Connor said Interlake's customers "appear very optimistic" and he expects all nine of the company's ships will be busy keeping up with demand.
"This year, we have a full book of business ... at this point, we're very comfortable, but anticipate a very busy season," O'Connor said.
This story was updated at 9:20 a.m. March 24 to correct the number of ships in Interlake's fleet to 10. The incorrect number was provided to the News Tribune.