Icy Traffic Jam On Lake Superior Has 18 Ships Stuck

Apr 8, 2015
Originally published on April 9, 2015 4:08 pm

Huge ice chunks stacked some 8 feet deep on Lake Superior have left 18 freighters stuck. The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have gotten involved, sending Canadian icebreakers and American vessels to help the ships break free from Whitefish Bay.

Mark Gill, director of Vessel Traffic Services for the U.S. Coast Guard at Ste. Saint Marie, Mich., told NPR's Melissa Block that the ice has created a traffic jam on the water. "Imagine an interstate highway where you've got a north- and a southbound lane," Gill said. "And there's a bridge that passes over a waterway, and that bridge is out, so traffic going north, traffic going south, can't move until that bridge is repaired — that's kind of what we're up against here."

Gill says weather is partly to blame. "Two weeks ago in Lake Superior, the lake was roughly 75 percent covered in ice," said Gill. "[With] warmer temperatures, that ice has begun to break free from the shoreline, and then we had a wind event last week where the westerly winds took all of that free-floating ice and has packed it into the eastern end of Lake Superior."

That ice has gotten packed pretty densely. "Whitefish Bay is 100 percent covered with ice that is 3 feet thick," said Gill. "The ice in Lake Superior has pressed up against this firm ice edge in Whitefish Bay and has started to roll up on itself, and it's created a roughly 35-square-mile field of ice. Some of the chunks that have come out of Lake Superior are pickup truck-sized. And those chunks that are that size are stacked on top of each other, they've reached a thickness of 8 feet."

Gill says as a result, six eastbound ships and 12 westbound ships, carrying mostly iron ore and coal, are blocked. "They're waiting in a holding pattern while we clear a path to get them through this field of ice." So far, two of those ships have started to make their way out of the ice with the help of a Canadian coast guard ship. A Canadian "arctic breaker" has been brought down to join the effort as well.

Gill told NPR that the ships have to clear a path for the freighters to get out of the ice. "It's not so much a breakup," he said. "You're picking through it till you find openings, and you're kinda shoving pieces away as you make your way through. By working side to side, you open it up, so that the ships that are kind of following you into it. You're literally creating an open space, and then sliding forward, and then an open space, and sliding forward."

The work can be dangerous, says Gill. "It's very tedious," he said. "And it's risky, 'cause at night, you can't see, and so you're almost at the behest of Mother Nature there as she blows her winds on it. Some of the pieces are jagged. One of the ships took a hole in one of its ballast tanks."

But Gill says for the most part, all parties involved have managed to keep their calm through the entire ordeal. "Time is money for these vessels, so they want to know when they're moving. Generally, it's calm, cool, and collected," he said. "Occasionally people's frustration gets the better of them and they get some flare-ups. But for the most part, it's civil."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To the Upper Peninsula of Michigan now for news about a major traffic backup. Those stuck aren't motorists. They're crews on ships. Eighteen freighters are blocked by ice on Lake Superior, some since Sunday. And that's been keeping Mark Gill busy. He's director of Vessel Traffic Services for the U.S. Coast Guard, and he joins from the traffic management Center in Sault Saint Marie, Mich. Welcome to the program.

MARK GILL: Hey, thanks for having me, appreciate it.

BLOCK: And this ice jam that we're talking about is on the eastern end of Lake Superior, near where you are. Why don't you describe the conditions and what happened - why these ships are blocked.

GILL: Sure. There's just east of Whitefish Point - there's a bay - Whitefish Bay - that is kind of acting as an obstruction. We've got a 35-square mile field of ice that's pressed up under pressure of wind, and it's created a blockage if you will. Strips of ice inside are reaching thicknesses of 8 feet, and it's given our icebreakers some - some challenges over the last couple of days. As a result, there are six ships that are eastbound or loaded down, and we have 12 empty ships that are headed up to gain cargo. They're waiting in a holding pattern here while we clear a path to get them through this field of ice.

BLOCK: OK, and how's that going, the path-clearing part of things?

GILL: Well, actually, we just made at least step one of our process to get through. A Canadian Coast Guard ship, Samuel Risley, with two of the down-bound vessels has managed to find a path through this ice. We've brought a second breaker from the Canadian Coast Guard, the Pierre Radisson, to the area. She's an arctic-breaker. She's double the horsepower of anything we have on scene. She's going to give us a hand for the next couple of days to get a track established, and we can move the rest of this traffic through in the next couple of days.

BLOCK: What do the folks on those icebreakers tell you about what that ice sounds like, looks like, feels like?

GILL: Well, some of the chunks that have come out of Lake Superior that are jammed up here our pickup truck-size...

BLOCK: Wow.

GILL: So that gives you a visual reference. And those chunks that are that size are stacked on top of each other, and they've reached a thickness of 8 feet, as I've described.

BLOCK: And how do they break it up?

GILL: Well, it's so much a break-up. You're picking through it 'til you find openings, and you're kind of shoving pieces away as you make your way through. And then by working side to side, you open it up so that the ships that are following can kind of follow you into it. You're literally creating an open space and then sliding forward and then an open space and sliding forward. So it's very tedious. And it's risky because at night, obviously, you can't see and so you're almost at the behest of Mother Nature there as she blows her winds on it. It shifts around, and so you've got to be really careful. And some of the pieces are jagged. One of the ships took a hole in one of its ballast tanks.

BLOCK: Oh, really?

GILL: And so we're having to take some cargo off of her, put it onto another ship so that she can go to her fare (ph) facility and be fixed.

BLOCK: What are the ships carrying, the freighters that have been trapped there?

GILL: Most are carrying bulk iron ore. Some of them have coal. We still have some coal-fired power plants up here, so that's the two major commodities that are being moved.

BLOCK: We're hearing some of the radio traffic there behind you, Mr. Gill. What are you hearing from the crews on these vessels? What generally are they telling you - or asking you?

GILL: Well, generally, you know, a timeframe. They all want to know - time is money for these vessels. And so they want to know when are we moving?

BLOCK: Yeah.

GILL: When is this breaker going to get here? When am I going to see some movement? A lot of them are trying to coordinate their own activities around that. And when you're dealing with a multi-day event like that, that can be very frustrating to them. So generally, it's calm, cool and collected. But occasionally, you know, people's frustration gets the better of them and you get some flare-ups. But for the most part, it's civil.

BLOCK: Well, I'm going to let you get back to work. I know it's a busy time for you, Mr. Gill. Thanks for talking with us.

GILL: I appreciate you telling our story. And again, thanks for your time.

BLOCK: Mark Gill is director of Vessel Traffic Services for the U.S. Coast Guard at Sault Saint Marie, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.