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US Coast Guard begins ice-breaking operations in Lake Superior

The Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay, a 140-foot ice-breaking tug, escorts the motor vessel Calumet through Lake Michigan near Lansing Shoal, Feb. 3, 2014. The cutter was operating as part of Operation Taconite, which is the ice breaking operation for the northern Great Lakes. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Daniel R. Michelson)
December 13, 2019

With ice coverage already expanding in commercial shipping ports in western Lake Superior, crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie kicked off their annual ice-breaking effort this week.

“Operation Taconite” is one of two large ice-breaking operations the Coast Guard undertakes each winter to keep shipping lanes open and assist with other issues on the Great Lakes.

The ice-breaking crews working Operation Taconite will be in Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the Straits of Mackinac, Georgian Bay, Green Bay, northern Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan.

Recent years have seen a few bitterly cold windows of fast-forming ice on the lakes, and freighters stuck in the ice have needed the Coast Guard’s help to break free.

According to the military, they base their ice-breaking operations on this list of priorities:

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  • Search and rescue and homeland security
  • Urgent response to vessels
  • Community services, which includes ice-breaking for flood control and to assist icebound communities in immediate need of food, fuel for heat or energy, and medical assistance
  • Facilitation of navigation

The shipping season in Lake Superior has about another month to go before the Soo Locks shuts down for its annual winter maintenance period, which runs roughly from mid-January to late March.

Each year, more than 4,500 ships move 80 million tons of cargo through the locks in the St. Marys River. The locks serve to raise and lower ships as they travel between the higher-elevation Lake Superior and the lower-elevation Lake Huron.

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