Adequate Icebreaking Resources

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter MACKINAW leads a U.S.-flag laker through heavy ice. Photo courtesy United States Coast Guard.

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 stationed on the Great Lakes. However, six of these vessels were built in the between 1978 and 1980 and are nearing the end of their serviceable lives. The Coast Guard acknowledged these vessels were in need of extensive repair and modernization and began a program of service life extension in 2014. As of this writing, four of the six 140-foot-long icebreaking tugs have much-needed upgrading and work on another is nearing completion, but it will take another two years to complete the program. It is expected the work will add 15 years to the serviceable lives of these icebreakers.

Two of the other vessels charged with icebreaking are buoy tenders, so their capabilities are therefore 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.

To meet the needs of commerce, lakers have to keep operating when ice returns in early December. The fleet can move almost 20 percent of its annual float during the ice season that begins in mid-December and stretches into April.

To meet the needs of commerce, lakers have to keep operating when ice returns in early December. The fleet can move almost 15 percent of its annual float during the ice season that begins in mid-December and stretches into April.

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!

The winter of 2017/2018 was not a severe as 13/14 and 14/15.  Even so, U.S.-flag laker cargos delayed or cancelled in December and January topped 1.8 million tons.  Further exacerbating the early onset of extreme cold was the lack of icebreaking assets, the U.S. Coast Guard’s decision to schedule maintenance on four of their eight icebreakers during the ice season (including a 30-day overhaul), lack of coordinated icebreaking that led to vessels heading to winter lay-up being given priority over vessels laden with cargo or needing to transit the Soo Locks before their January 15 closing, individual vessels being assisted before convoys, tasking icebreakers to secondary and tertiary waterways which left primary waterways unattended, and lastly, consistently prioritizing Canadian-flag vessels and Canadian ports over U.S.-flag vessels and American ports.

The good news is Congress understands the Coast Guard does not have enough icebreaking resources on the Great Lakes and authorized construction of a second MACKINAW-class icebreaker in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015. Some funding has been provided for preliminary design, so LCA’s goal now is have Congress fund the $240 million the vessel is projected to cost.

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