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Great Lakes icebreaking season kicks off

The U. S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, right, works in thick ice to break out the freighter Edwin Gott on Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior in 2015. Icebreaking operations just kicked off for the 2019 season.

The U.S. Coast Guard kicked off its annual icebreaking operations on the Great Lakes to ensure that lake freighters can continue to haul iron ore from Minnesota and Michigan to Northwest Indiana's steel mills and that other maritime commerce can continue through the winter months.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie started Operation Taconite to break through ice in the commercial ports of western Lake Superior and the St. Marys River, a key passage that enables ore boats from the Minnesota Iron Range move from Lake Superior into Lake Huron, so they can gain access to Lake Michigan. 

It's the U.S. Coast Guard's largest domestic icebreaking operation and has been ongoing since 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered it “to assist in keeping open to navigation by means of icebreaking operations, in so far as practicable, and as the exigencies may require, channels and harbors in accordance with the reasonable demands of commerce.”

Coast Guard cutters press down on ice cover on the Great Lakes, breaking it up to clear way for boats headed to points including the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor and the steel mills that ring the southern shore of Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana.

"Operation Taconite encompasses Lake Superior, St. Marys River, Straits of Mackinac, Georgian Bay, Green Bay, northern Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan," the U.S. Coast Guard said in a press release.

Beyond facilitating commercial navigation after the Great Lakes freeze over, the Coast Guard icebreakers also engage in search and rescue operations, help out ships stuck in deteriorating weather conditions, and respond to community emergencies, including providing flood control services or medical assistance.

Though this winter has been relatively mild, it is not apparent how much the Great Lakes are frozen over. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration normally reports real-time ice coverage over the Great Lakes, but is not currently doing so because of the partial federal government shutdown.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.