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Environment & Energy

The Coast Guards Battle Heavy Ice on the Great Lakes

Photo of USCG Cutter Neah Bay

The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have assisted more than 300 ships this winter, one of the most demanding years for icebreaking. 

So far, the Great Lakes ice cover is more extensive than it has been in the last two years. A big freeze hit the region right at the end of the shipping season, causing problems for several of the region’s biggest industries.

The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for making sure ships travel the lakes safely, and Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan says that takes a lot of planning. Her agency works in partnership with Canadian counterparts.

“Our Canadian Coast Guard partners, our U.S. Coast Guard, and our industry partners get to call in,” said Nunan.  “This is much more on a daily tactical level in terms of where their ships are going to be, any special circumstances we should know about, and they’re able to hear from us what are the priorities.”

Canadian/U.S. partnership
Even with the rough winter – and an ice-breaker sidelined for engine repairs -- Nunan says the U.S. Coast Guard hasn’t asked Canada for help this year.  She also says waterway availability in the northern region of the Great Lakes stands at 92 percent -- in the southern part of the region, it's 80 percent.

The U.S. and Canada recently renewed their partnership.

The U.S. Coast Guard is also helping communities and individuals.  So far this winter, it has helped three communities with flooding control. Problems occur when ice clogs up a river. That obstruction, known as an ice dam or ice plug, can cause flooding as water builds up and overflows the banks.

The most recent community called for help just last week.

“Fairport Harbor, in Ohio, just down the way was experiencing some flooding,” Nunan said.  “We sent the Coast Guard Neah Bay – one of our cutters -- here in to basically break up the ice plug and continue to break it up so the water could flow through.”

Shifting to search and rescue
Now that the shipping season has ended, the Coast Guard’s main mission is search and rescue.

Nunan warns individuals – especially those in Northeast Ohio – not to walk onto Lake Erie when it's iced over. Rescuing someone from ice is challenging, and often unsuccessful.

Great Lakes Today is a collaboration of ideastream, WBBO Buffalo, and WXXI Rochester. For more information, visit greatlaketoday.org.