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Ice conditions causing concern for Great Lakes shipping industry

The recent plight of a well-known lake freighter, and satellite images that show the Great Lakes once again almost entirely covered in ice, are causing worry in the Great Lakes shipping industry about the prospects of another difficult spring.

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The freighter Arthur M. Anderson is caught in ice near Conneaut, Ohio, on Feb. 19. Icebreaking vessels from the U.S. and Canadian coast guards worked to free the Anderson. (Canadian Coast Guard photo via the U.S. Coast Guard)
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The recent plight of a well-known lake freighter, and satellite images that show the Great Lakes once again almost entirely covered in ice, are causing worry in the Great Lakes shipping industry about the prospects of another difficult spring.

"Obviously it's been another brutal winter," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association. "If it keeps going it will be a challenging resumption to navigation when we get going again in March."

As of Friday, the Arthur M. Anderson was working in convoy toward its winter lay-up in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. - and its journey may be a harbinger of things to come.

The 63-year-old, 767-foot ship endured a difficult time on Lake Erie earlier this month, Nekvasil said. The Anderson had unloaded cargo near Chicago and was on its way to Conneaut, Ohio, last week when it got stuck in ice on southern Lake Erie, according to media reports.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist told the News Tribune that ice on the lake at that time was 1 to 2 feet thick and likely included windblown rubble fields of ice and pressure ridges - resulting from ice plates crashing against each other - that reached up to 10 feet tall and penetrated equally as deep below water.

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"We're seeing some real difficult shipping conditions on Lake Erie, with a lot of ridging in the central and south parts of the lake," said George Leshkevich, a research scientist based at NOAA's office in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Anderson was ultimately freed by Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers after spending several days trapped in ice 7 miles offshore from Conneaut, the website boatnerd.com reported.

Because there was no getting into Conneaut - a small port between Cleveland and Erie, Pa. - the Canadian Coast Guard helped the Anderson turn around for refueling and resupplying in Detroit. Its return voyage to Wisconsin has been slow going, requiring escorts and other vessel support. It is expected to arrive this weekend.

The Anderson was the last ship in radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald before the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in 1975 with the loss of all aboard.

Lake Erie is 95 percent ice covered, according to NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

"What were are seeing now is a rather severe year," Leshkevich said. "The lakes, at least Superior, Huron and Erie, are 95 or 96 percent covered, and about 85.5 percent total, which is a little more ice this year than at the same time last year."

Last year's ice coverage was considered epic. It topped out at 92.6 percent coverage on March 6, Leshkevich said, while ice out on Lake Superior wasn't declared until June 6. The Great Lakes shipping industry worked overtime and carried extra loads and cargoes into December and January to achieve sterling shipping numbers that had lagged due to ice delays in spring.

Leshkevich said a warm spell in February 2014 kept things from getting even worse last spring. No such warm-up came this February, which didn't get above freezing in the Northland. Leshkevich blamed polar air masses but was reluctant to make forecasts. He would predict only that the Great Lakes haven't yet reached peak ice coverage, which is expected in early March.

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"I'm sure shipping folks are on edge right now about what the spring may bring," he said.

Meanwhile, Nekvasil and others are using the second straight season of tough ice conditions to call on the U.S. Coast Guard to improve its icebreaking capabilities by adding an additional heavy icebreaker, to go with its Mackinaw. It's the only heavy icebreaker in the Coast Guard's Great Lakes fleet that also includes several 140-foot icebreaking tug boats. The 140s couldn't free the Anderson, Nekvasil said, requiring the Canadian Coast Guard's intervention.

"We would like to see the Coast Guard build a twin to the Mackinaw," Nekvasil said.

The Coast Guard told a gathering of ship captains on Feb. 12 that they'd be ready for the spring shipping breakout, said Nekvasil, who attended the meeting. But with back-to-back winters fraught with widespread ice cover on the Great Lakes, Nekvasil said the industry is rethinking the term unprecedented.

"We've got 900 miles from Duluth to Buffalo," Nekvasil said. "We need more assets out here on the lakes."

The Coast Guard did not respond in time for this story.

Nekvasil said the interlake cement industry probably will begin shipping March 12, followed by the Soo Locks opening March 25, allowing traffic between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes.

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