Coast Guard will 'platoon' icebreakers in Twin Ports
Stranded between its last and next Coast Guard cutters, Duluth-Superior will be reliant on a temporary plan for breaking ice in 2021-22.
As the Twin Ports enters the winter season without a home-based icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard's regional headquarters affirmed Wednesday the port would be covered.
“The icebreaking needs of Duluth-Superior will be met with a Coast Guard asset,” said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic services based at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
Cutters capable of breaking ice will be moved to Duluth-Superior in the weeks prior to season’s end Jan. 15, and again before the reopening of the Soo Locks at the start of the 2022-23 season around March 25, Gill said.
The Coast Guard plans to “platoon” different 140-foot cutters to maintain open water in the shipping channels, he added.
The Twin Ports is without a Coast Guard vessel since the cutter Alder departed for a year of maintenance in July preceding its move to the San Francisco Bay Area.
On its way out of Duluth, Alder changes command The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder waved goodbye to a 28-year veteran, and introduced the man who will return to the Twin Ports with another ship, the Spar.
US Coast Guard Cutter Alder leaving Twin Ports for Bay Area The announcement Friday amounted to a swap of assets — with the Alder heading for a year of maintenance and then permanent residency in San Francisco, while USCG Cutter Spar will be bound for Duluth in spring 2022.
“Obviously, the Alder’s absence is a concern to many people,” Gill said, describing meetings about icebreaking coverage last summer between local and regional Coast Guard leadership along with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
“We think we’ve accounted for all the contingencies, and all the things that can go bad,” Gill added. “We have a plan going forward.”
The Port Authority compared it to making the best of a difficult situation, with Executive Director Deb DeLuca saying, "We’re apprehensive about going into the winter without (Alder). But we’ve received every assurance from the U.S. Coast Guard that it will deliver sufficient, timely icebreaking support."
DeLuca, in her statement to the newspaper, reiterated a need for greater icebreaking capacity on the Great Lakes, which rely on predictable icebreaking, she said.
"Platooning assets from elsewhere isn’t an ideal tactic, but those are the cards we’ve been dealt," DeLuca said. "It definitely underscores the need for federal investment in modern, dependable icebreaking assets, and more of them."
The Twin Ports can expect the arrival of the cutter Spar to home port in Duluth sometime in 2022, Gill said, replacing the Alder as the local buoy tender and part-time icebreaker.
Last December, the cutter Biscayne Bay filled in breaking ice in the Twin Ports while the Alder was on rest, its crew recovering from a long mission.
That’s what the Twin Ports can expect going forward for now, Gill said. In the event the U.S. Coast Guard cannot reach Duluth in a timely manner, the Canadian Coast Guard cutter Samuel Risley has been arranged to help.
“Will we leave an asset in Duluth over the winter? That will be a definite no,” Gill said, repeating a question he’s been asked a lot. “We have no plan to keep an icebreaker in Duluth-Superior over the period of (Soo) lock closure.”
The Soo Locks, located between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes on the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie, are closed for repair several weeks every winter. It’s a period of maintenance and repair for commercial lake freighters, too, which lay up in regional shipyards.
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Until then, the goal is to push commercial vessel traffic through whatever the Great Lakes and Mother Nature have to offer. So far, it’s been clear sailing and Lake Superior remains warmer than normal.
“All signs point to an easier start to winter than a harder start,” Gill said. “I’d like to get us to (Soo) lock closure without hassles or delays.”
Gill cited the National Weather Service, binational ice services, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when he said expectations so far were for a year similar to last year’s “substandard” ice formations, which featured some of the lowest ice coverage and thickness on record.
“They’re predicting something similar to last year," Gill said. "I always put in the caveat that these are all models and subject to variations.”
In 2014-15, the Great Lakes featured “generational (ice) events,” of nearly full coverage of the lakes those years. A 20-hour mission to cross Lake Superior to Duluth took four days in 2014, Gill recalled, and there were major commercial disruptions from vessels stuck in the ice.
In 2014, the Coast Guard sent its 240-foot heavy icebreaker Mackinaw to Duluth-Superior.
“We sent in a big breaker to establish the tracks,” Gill said. “Last winter, the conditions didn’t demand a Mackinaw presence.”
Mackinaw is not anticipated to be needed locally this winter, either, Gill said. Generally speaking, Mackinaw will spend its time on connecting waters between Great Lakes, in places like the St. Marys River, and the St. Clair River between lakes Huron and Erie.
“We keep the heavies in those areas,” Gill said. “N ot to downplay any port, but the connecting waters are the interstates of the Great Lakes, and they generally create the highest priority."
Local port facilities are akin to a county road or side street, Gill added, and generally require smaller cutters to maintain tracks.
Gill said the expectation was that the Duluth-Superior harbor would freeze over in typical fashion, and feature 100% coverage inside the harbors with 18-24 inches of ice.
It's unclear how much of Lake Superior will freeze; last year's peak came in February at 38.2% coverage, according to the Canadian Ice Service. As of Wednesday, NOAA had Lake Superior's ice coverage barely registering at 0.1%.
Of course, the sudden arrival of a polar vortex could change everything.
“I’m a pessimist at heart," Gill said. "My job is to prepare for the worst and accept the good.”