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Coast Guard Struggles to Keep Shipping Lanes Open in Great Lakes

Image via Flickr by U.S. Geological Survey

The massive polar vortex, which has brought temperatures of below zero degrees Fahrenheit to regions stretching from Canada through the Deep South, is causing the earliest freeze of the shipping lanes in the Great Lakes since the 1930’s. Since freightliners are unable to break through these massive bodies of ice on their own, the Coast Guard operates four ice breakers in the area to assist freighters in making safe voyages. Most of these freighters, ranging in size from 730 feet to 1,000 feet long, are carrying necessary supplies between suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors in the Canadian and Midwestern U.S. regions. Most of the shipments contain iron ore for manufacturing, including Detroit auto manufacturing, as well as coal, heating oil for homes and businesses, and grains.

The ships concentrate their efforts on the river channels that connect the Lakes. In temperatures like what they are experiencing now, the ice quickly builds to a foot in thickness, and the ice breaking ships make a noise during operation that is constant and deafening, according to Coast Guard personnel operating the ships. However, the Coast Guard personnel chooses to be on these routes.

Some of the thickest ice the Guard is battling is the waters connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The most challenging part of the job, according to Guard personnel aboard the ice breaking ship USCGC Bristol Bay, is when winds whip in behind the ship and essentially erase the path the ship has just carved for a freighter to pass through. The ice actually becomes thicker then, than it was before the ice breaker made its pass.

According to WeatherBug Meteorologist Todd Nelson, no break in the sub-zero temperatures in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions are expected in the next several days, meaning the Coast Guard still has quite a bit of work left to do.

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