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Coping with exceptional ice in the Great Lakes

March 11, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
A brutally cold winter has covered the Great Lakes with more ice than they have seen since 1979. Special correspondent Elizabeth Bracket of WTTW reports on the struggle to keep shipping lanes open to Chicago’s ice-clogged harbor to Lake Michigan.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: This brutally cold winter has created an icy wonderland on the surface of the Great Lakes.

Special correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW Chicago ventured out to see it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The sun is just beginning to rise over Chicago’s ice-clogged harbor.

Docked at Navy Pier, the Coast Guard’s ice cutter, the Biscayne Bay, starts gearing up for a long day. Breaking a track through the harbor ice, the Biscayne Bay heads out to clear shipping lanes in Lake Michigan. The ship is based in Northern Michigan near the Straits of Mackinac. It’s rare that the icebreakers are needed in the southern half of the lake.

LT. J.G. PAUL JUNGHANS, Coast Guard: This is actually our first time this winter down to the south end of Lake Michigan, so I can’t say what it’s been like down here, but in the straits, it’s been — this has been the worst winter in 25 years.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The hull of the 140-foot-long icebreaker is reinforced with extra steel around the waterline and bow. Powerful bubblers on the bow and stern shoot out air that helps lubricate the hull against the ice. Rather than cutting the ice, the ship acts like a small tank and just plows right through it.

CHIEF PETTY OFFICER MIKE SINGLETON, Coast Guard: Right there, we call that plate ice. It’s about eight to 10 inches thick right now. It’s not too bad. And then you can see some of the plate has broken up right there. Once that starts piling up on itself, it creates a windrow, and that makes it difficult for us to get through the ice.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: About an hour out of Chicago, the Biscayne Bay hit a windrow. As the heavy ice slowed the boat, orders were given for more aggressive icebreaking maneuvers.

CHIEF PETTY OFFICER MIKE SINGLETON: This is where we back and ram. We’ll put the boat in a surge propulsion. We’ll back up about three ship lengths, and then we’ll go as fast as we can. And we’ll hit this windrow, and we’ll come up over the ice and continue on.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Great Lakes haven’t seen this much ice since 1979. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reports that 91 percent of all the Great Lakes have been covered with ice this winter.

Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie led the way with 95 percent coverage. Lake Michigan is next with 93 percent coverage, and Lake Ontario with 40 percent. The extensive ice coverage surprises even longtime observers of the lake, like Joel Brammeier with the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

JOEL BRAMMEIER, Alliance for the Great Lakes: The idea of the Great Lakes freezing over entirely is simply something that doesn’t happen. And, in fact, even on Lake Superior, the last time Lake Superior froze over was in the mid-’90s. And so this is a very special, unusual winter.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This year, the Coast Guard has been needed to keep the southern shipping lanes open. On this day, the Biscayne Bay worked to clear a path for a tug trying to push a barge into the ice-covered port of Indiana at Burns Harbor.

After several passes by the cutter, the barge finally made it to dock to deliver a load of scrap iron. But the ice has held up other ships and barges.

The Lake Carriers’ Association reports shipping dropped 30 percent this winter.

Brian LaRue says his company’s barges should be lined up along the pier here in the port of Indiana.

BRIAN LARUE, Federal Marine Terminals: Well, we’ve got approximately 18 barges waiting to be brought to our terminal. So all of our employees are waiting for these barges to get in place so they can come to work. So, there’s — there’s quite a bit of work to be done, and we’re waiting on it to happen.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But all this ice is not all bad news for the lakes.

JOEL BRAMMEIER: More winter ice cover is actually good for the lakes because it stops water from evaporating, and the last several years, and in fact for the last decade, we have seen record and near record low water levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron. With the high levels of snowfall and the high levels of ice, we are probably going to see a big uptick in water levels come spring of 2014.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It’s not just the ice cap that is keeping evaporation rates down. High evaporation rates occur when there is cool air over warm water. The water cooled very quickly this fall, dropping evaporation rates dramatically from previous years.

Because of this, scientists are now predicting nearly a three-foot rise in water levels, which would bring lake levels back up to the long-term average by next August.

BRIAN LARUE: That’s great news. The more — the higher the water levels, that means the deeper the ships that we can accommodate here at the port, so we’re always — when we hear that the water levels are being raised, that’s always a good sign for us.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But spring is still a long way off for shippers and the crew of the Biscayne Bay, where 17-hour days have not been uncommon, though the ship’s captain, Tom Przybyla, is not complaining.

LT. TOM PRZYBYLA, Coast Guard: It’s almost like being in another world. It doesn’t feel like you’re out on the lake at all. And it’s vibrating. The ship is moving. Sometimes, there’s big collisions, where the entire ship will shift off to the side a little bit, and you sort of lose your footing as you’re walking around.

And it’s just constantly — it’s — I have heard it described as like you’re living in an earthquake. Looking out at the ice, it’s almost like looking at the surface of the moon or something like that, because it just goes for miles and miles and miles.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Biscayne Bay heads back up north, after opening a track in the port of Indiana. There will be little downtime, as the icebreaker continues to tackle the most ice seen in the Great Lakes in decades.