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Ice on Superior - The Winter that won't end!
Written by Brenda Grundt   
Tuesday, 22 April 2014 14:29


Spring seems to be taking forever to arrive, but we are not really seeing the worst of the late spring.
The Great Lakes, and Lake Superior is holding on to their ice. As a result the freighters that normally travel the Great Lakes are having their fair share of problems. This has been a very long winter season, beginning with the Great Lakes freezing on December 6th, not allowing Northwest Indiana steel mills to stockpile materials. Glen Nekvasil, vice president for Lake Carriers' Association explained that lake freighters are struggling to make the voyage across Lake Superior despite the thick shelf ice and windrows of up to 14-feet-tall. Those delays caused Gary Works to run at reduced capacity. "This is the worst winter since 1993 or 1994," Nekvasil said. "The last time ice breakers were out this late in the season convoying vessles was 1996. It's been a very brutal winter."
Closer to home, Essar Steel is receiving freighter shipments of coal from the south, however iron ore from Duluth/Superior are being delayed. Essar Steel is receiving ore via rail. 
On March 24th at midnight the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie was ready for business, the Lake Superior Shipping Season was to begin. Two days later on the 26th, the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Pierre Radisson left the Poe Lock on its way to Eastern Lake Superior to assist the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw who was escorting the Cason J. Callaway and John G. Munson through towards Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo Locks. The convoy left Two Harbors, Minnesota on March 26th and would take them 9 days to cross Lake Superior.
On April 8th, the NGCC Cutter Pierre Radisson leds the Roger Blough, the first upbound freighter of the 2014 season, towards the Poe Lock. Due to heavy ice in the lower river, the Coast Guard would bring vessels up one at time. Things hadn't changed much by the 16th. Boats were still travelling in convoys on Lake Superior, escorted by Canadian and American Coast Guard icebreakers. A busy morning, April 18th would see the arrival of the second downbound convoy and two upbound boats. Here the CSL Tadoussac makes its way between the 1000 footers Walter J. McCarthey Jr., and the Paul R. Tregurtha (unbound). Activity has slowed since then with boats tied to the piers waiting for traffic in the river to clear as icebreakers escort boats through the ice.
Ice coverage on April 15th, 2014.
The Algosteel left Sault Ste. Marie on April 15th at 5:19 p.m, and 8 days later is just of Pork Bay, expected in Superior at 7 a.m.
Freighters on April 15th, 2014.
Freighters on April 18th, 2014 being lead by the Pierre Radisson.
Ice coverage on April 18th, 2014.
Freighters going up, down and stopped on April 19th, 2014. The little squares denote a stopped freighter, the blue an icebreaker.
From Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping News, 
"on April 19th, at 9:30 p.m., the Canadian icebreaker Pierre Radisson passed into Whitefish Bay escorting the Edwin H. Gott, Edgar B. Speer, Stewart J. Cort and Sam Laud downbound. They were followed an hour later by the USCG Mackinaw and Algoma Discovery. They stopped for the night with plans to resume their ice battle Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the waiting upbound convoy stretches over 10 miles from Ile Parisienne to Gros Cap and includes Roger Blough, Algoma Olympic, Algosteel, Radcliffe R. Latimer, Tecumseh, Lee A. Tregurtha, Herbert C. Jackson, Paul R. Tregurtha and James R. Barker.
The ice delays this season are unprecedented. The Roger Blough arrived for upbound passage on April 4. After suffering ice damage she had to turn back from the first upbound convoy and undergo repairs at the Soo. She is upbound for permanent repairs at Fraser Shipyard in Superior.
When the Edwin H. Gott, Edgar B. Speer, Stewart J. Cort and Sam Laud reached the Soo it marked the downbound leg of a round trip journey that took more than two weeks, it normally would take about three days."
Ice coverage on April 20th, 2014.
On the 20th, Paul Beesley writes on the Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping News:
"The recent cold spell has made river transits difficult again. All the icebreaking over the past two weeks has created a large amount of brash ice, which has frozen into nearly impenetrable masses, particularly in the various turns along the river. When this brash is again broken it simply fills the track to a depth of several feet and will not flow downstream. As a ship moves through it the brash gets pushed aside and becomes even deeper along the ship's sides. That's a lot of friction along the hull and all that friction saps the power from the ship's engines and bogs her down. Even the icebreakers have trouble turning and progressing through this stuff.
Despite this several ships were moved up and down river. Those that have been waiting the longest were looking forward to loading provisions and fresh water, as they normally do not go this long without refilling their water tanks. Showers were rationed as water levels on board dropped."
Ice coverage on April 21st, 2014.
The freighters have made their way out of Whitefish Bay and are now rounding Whitefish Point.
Today, April 22nd, four days later, the Paul R. Tregurtha is just rounding Whitefish Point. The NGCC Cutter Pierre Radisson and the Martha L. Black are escorting the group of five freighters, Paul R. Tregurtha, James R. Barker, American Integrity, Lee A. Tregurtha and the Tecumseh. All but the Tecumseh is headed to Duluth/Superior. The Tecumseh is headed to Thunder Bay. The Martha L. Black will also head to Thunder Bay where Harbour Master Guy Jarvis is reporting 36 to 40" of ice in the harbour. The trip from Duluth/Superior usually takes 28 hours.
The Lake Carriers' Association issued a report on April 17th:
"Massive, thick ice formations on the Great Lakes limited iron ore shipments in March to 1.1 million tons, a decrease of 43 percent compared to a year ago. Shipments from U.S. Great Lakes ports fell even more, 52 percent.
Some of the ore that was loaded in March did not reach its intended destination until well into April. Two vessels that departed Duluth/Superior at the western end of Lake Superior on March 26 did not arrive in Gary, Indiana, until April 7. Under normal circumstances, the 797-mile voyage takes about 62 hours.
An iron ore cargo loaded in Escanaba, Michigan, on March 5 destined for Cleveland, Ohio, a voyage of 545 miles, was in transit for 12 days rather than the normal 50 hours.
Through March, the Lakes ore trade stands at 3.5 million tons, a decrease of 33 percent. The decrease would be more, but in an effort to maintain steel production, 370,000 tons of iron ore moved in February, usually a month with no shipments. The ice on the Lakes was not the only challenge faced. The sub-zero temperatures nearly paralyzed the docks and one cargo took more than three days to load. The vessel should have been full in about 6 hours."
The reports about coal were no different:
"Ice, sometimes more than 4 feet thick in places, effectively stalled the resumption of the coal trade on the Great Lakes in March. Only three coal cargos were loaded, one on Lake Superior, one on Lake Michigan and one on Lake Erie. Combined, the cargos totaled 102,000 tons, a decrease of 70 percent compared to a year ago.
Compared to the month’s 5-year average, March loadings were down more than 80 percent.
Year-to-date the Lakes coal trade stands at 475,000 tons, a decrease of 16 percent compared to a year ago, but 54 percent below the long-term average for the first quarter."
The heavy cover of ice has hampered diving ducks and other waterfowl from feeding, resulting in an unprecedented die off this year. Necropsies confirm that the birds have died of starvation.
The spawning of fish will be delayed as it will take longer for water temperatures to rise. Pike spawn around 40F, Lake Sturgeon from 55-64F, Steelhead above 41F, and a favourite for sponge - smelt at 40F. The temperature at Bouy 45001 just off Rossport is reading 34F today.
If as predicted water levels should rise, the freighters will be able to carry more once the ice melts, and less dredging will have to happen. In Chicago's there is a possibility that if the lake level rises, some of the slips that couldn't be rented last year - will be this year.
In the meantime though, as the ice slowly shifts around and melts, watching the progress of the freighters across Lake Superior is interesting. You can watch for yourself at these two sites:


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