Ships, including iron ore freighters bound for Northwest Indiana steel mills, have been jamming up the ice-choked St. Marys River in recent weeks as they rush to make deliveries before the Soo Locks close this week.
The river that separates Michigan from Canada and connects Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes serves as a key shipping channel that links the local steel industry with the raw materials — iron ore, coal and limestone — it forges into metal.
Bitterly cold winter weather caused the river and the Great Lakes to start freezing over in late November — the earliest point in recent history. Since early December, U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers have been shearing through ice that is so thick it has knitted back up after the ships passed through.
Freezing temperatures have turned shipping on the Great Lakes into an ice-gripped struggle this winter. Lake Michigan is now more than 35 percent frozen over, a level of iciness that has not occurred in five years, let alone at such an early juncture, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
"It's had a major impact on shipping," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents the commercial shipping industry on the Great Lakes. "We've had to cancel cargoes. We've been dealing with formidable ice conditions."
The Great Lakes shipping industry has not grappled with such extreme cold and inhospitable conditions since 2004, Nekvasil said. Ships are getting stuck in ice, or moving slowly through it. Voyages are being delayed by 40 to 50 hours. Shipments are being canceled.
Lake Michigan usually does not get this frozen until February, and it has not had such extensive ice coverage at all over the past few mild winters, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist George Leshkevich, who studies ice, snow and chlorophyll on the Great Lakes.
In an average winter, about 55 percent of Lake Michigan's surface gets covered with ice. Ice coverage has been more in the range of 20 percent over the past four years, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
This year, the extreme cold may freeze over as much as 62 percent of Lake Michigan, Leshkevich said. The lake is now about 36 percent frozen over, as compared to 2 percent at the same time last year.
"The very cold and frigid temperatures helped the ice to form and to build in the lakes a little earlier this year," he said.
Tug boats, ice breakers work hard to keep pace
Freighters and other ships have had to wait on U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers to clear paths and lead them in convoys. But one of the nine icebreakers the Coast Guard deploys to escort commercial ships during the winter has been sidelined because of mechanical issues. A second cutter — the Hollyhock — collided with a nearly 1,000-foot-long super-carrier after a chunk of ice proved sturdier than it appeared.
The icebreakers have been battling thick ice that has clogged two main points of passage: the Straits of Mackinac and the Saint Marys River. Both channels are key links that allow lake freighters to haul iron ore pellets mined in the Iron Range in upper Minnesota to the Northwest Indiana steel mills.
"The reason the steel mills are on Lake Michigan is that it's most cost-effective to move raw materials by boat," Nekvasil said. "It's very raw material-intensive. It takes 1.5 tons of iron ore to make a ton of steel."
Typically, 50 million tons to 60 million tons of iron ore gets shipped across the Great Lakes on the average year. About 25 million tons to 35 million go to Northwest Indiana ports at steel mills in East Chicago, Gary and Burns Harbor.
Much of it goes from ports in upper Minnesota across Lake Superior, into the Saint Marys River, through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Michigan, down past the Straits of Mackinac and south to the mills at Lake Michigan's southern shore. The voyage usually lasts two and a half days but has been taking nearly twice as long because of the ice. A further delay occurs because the Coast Guard will not break ice at night for safety reasons, Nekvasil said.
As much as 20 percent of the ore gets shipped during the icebreaking season, which runs between mid-December and mid-April. The past few weeks have been especially crucial since steel mills have been stockpiling iron ore pellets in anticipation of the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie closing Wednesday. They won't reopen until late March.
The port of Escanaba in upper Michigan will continue to send iron ore shipments for a few more weeks, but mills largely will have to get by on stockpiled inventory.
"Escanaba alone cannot supply the entire steel industry," Nekvasil said.
When the Soo Locks close and the iron ore freighters stop coming, the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor in Portage will continue to handle barges from the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Much of the cargo passes through the inland rivers and the Gulf of Mexico on its way to international markets.
The port also continues to get a fair amount of lake vessels after the traditional shipping season ends. When needed, icebreakers will help them move their cargo.
For now, tug boats have been able to manage the wintry conditions, which include icing in the harbor, spokeswoman Heather Bunning said. The tug boats bring in the ships when they decide it is safe to do so. Last Friday, the 1,000-foot-long Burns Harbor freighter stopped in port to make a delivery to ArcerlorMittal.
"It's a year-round operation," Bunning said.