An Executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 charges the U.S. Coast Guard with breaking ice on U. S. waterways to meet the needs of commerce. Shipping during the Great Lakes ice season (early December through late April, even early May on occasion) is critical to keeping America's and Canada's economic engines humming. Customers on both sides of the border must minimize stockpiling costs, so vessels continue to operate even as the ice reaches a thickness of three or four feet. Cargo movement during the ice season can top 20 million tons, or 15 percent of the annual total.
To facilitate commerce during the ice season, the U.S. Coast Guard has nine vessels with icebreaking capabilities. However, six of these vessels were built in the 1970s and are now nearing the end of their serviceable lives. The Coast Guard acknowledged that these vessels were in need of extensive repair and modernization and began a program of service life extension in 2014. As of summer 2016, one of the six 140-foot-long icebreaking tugs has completed the much-needed upgrading and work on another is nearing completion, but it will take another four years before the process is complete.
Two of the other vessels charged with icebreaking are actually buoy tenders whose hulls were strengthened, but their capabilities have proven to be limited.
Leading the U.S. Coast Guard’s Great Lakes icebreaking team is the cutter MACKINAW. Launched in 2006, she is the only heavy icebreaker on the U.S. side. She is the second heavy icebreaker to carry that name on the Lakes. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Congress approved construction of a heavy icebreaker to keep cargo moving on the Lakes so America could be the “Arsenal of Democracy.” The first MACKINAW was commissioned in 1944 and served the nation well until her retirement in 2006.
Canada too tasks its Coast Guard with icebreaking. The country used to have seven icebreakers stationed on the Lakes, but now keeps only two such vessels in the region and those are also in need of replacement.
The winters of 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 dramatically illustrated the need for more icebreaking resources, both U.S. and Canadian. The winters were near arctic, and millions of tons of cargo were either delayed or outright cancelled. During the winter of 2013/2014 the damage from ice cost U.S.-flag vessel operators $6 million to repair. The following spring more than a few vessels delayed their sailing rather than risk more ice damage.
Ice impacts on employment and business during those two winters were even more significant. The jobs lost totaled 5,800 and the lost economic activity topped $1 billion!
Help is on the way. A provision in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 authored by Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) authorizes construction of a new icebreaker for the Lakes. In June 2016 Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) included $2 million for design of an icebreaker at least as capable as the current MACKINAW in the Committee Report on the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill. Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Sean Duffy (R-WI) and Senator Gary Peters (R-MI) are also laser-focused on the issue. Much remains to be done, but thanks to a committed Great Lakes delegation, a second heavy icebreaker to supplement the MACKINAW is several steps closer to reality.