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March 12, 2014

Coping with exceptional ice on the Great Lakes


The brutally cold winter has taken its toll on the surface of the Great Lakes, causing record ice coverage and obstructing major shipping routes.

Icebreakers from the U.S. Coast Guard have been working around the clock to clear the ice on the Great Lakes, even going to the southern half of Lake Michigan where their services are rarely needed.

“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,” said Lt. J.G. Paul Junghans.

The hull of the Coast Guard’s 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.

Despite the icebreaking efforts, the shipping industry has still seen a major impact on business. The Lake Carriers’ Association that operates in the Great Lakes reports shipping dropped 30 percent this winter. However, they are optimistic that the ice coverage will actually be good news in the spring.

“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,” said Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“That’s great news,” said Brian Larue of Federal Marine Terminals, whose company operates ships on the lakes. “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.”

Warm up questions
  1. What has the weather been like in your area of the country this winter?
  2. Where are the Great Lakes?
Discussion questions
  1. What challenges did the Coast Guard face this winter in the Great Lakes?
  2. What are some of the tools they used to solve their ice problem?
  3. Are there any benefits for the Great Lakes from this brutal winter?
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