by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
The winter of 2013-14 was one for the books when the Great Lakes neared total ice coverage at 92.5 percent.
The 2017-18 season is nowhere near that, but it is above average, according to Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic for the United States Coast Guard, Sault Ste. Marie. The lakes were at 26.7 percent ice concentration as of Monday. It was 30 percent Jan. 6.
“If you were to look at the long-term average, and we have been measuring ice coverage since the 1970s, it is above the 30-year average,” said Gill. “How does it rank with periods of cold and history? It’s too early to say it is one of the worst.” He said the winter of 2013-14 was called a “generational event” with the most ice in 35 years.
“We are a little behind that, so not quite generational,” said Gill. “Is it more than we typically see? Yes, I would say it is more in tune with what we would see during a historically average year. Coverage is up, but thickness is down.”
Lake Huron is at 34.7 percent concentration Monday, but slipped below 30 percent because of the warm up this week, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. However, it was 38.77 percent, Jan. 6. It was at about 17 percent a year ago at this time.
The long-term forecast has northern Michigan at or below normal temperatures, so the ice is expected to expand and linger into spring.
In the meantime, Coast Guard breakers are working long shifts to keep vessel traffic flowing until the Soo Locks closes for the winter at midnight (Jan.15).
“I would say we are averaging about 16 hours a day for ice breaking,” said Gill. “They will sit down in the evenings to grab a quick cat nap. For the most part, it’s around the clock operations.”
There have been several waterway restrictions that have resulted in some vessels being stopped by ice.
“On the St. Marys River, we have had three or four stoppages,” said Gill on Monday. “The longest delay has been 12 hours. Most of the time it is during the nighttime where we sequence (ice breakers) during the night and move them during the daylight when we can see.”
The ice breakers working in the Straits of Mackinac and St. Marys River earlier this week were Mackinaw, Mobile Bay, Biscayne Bay and Bristol Bay.
The locks close for winter maintenance and reopen, March 25 at midnight.
The ice is making it likely that the ice bridge from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island, as well as other ice bridges could open for the first time in two years.
“Right now, we are wrapping up the last freight shipments to Mackinac Island. That is usually when we signal the closure of that waterway,” said Gill. “The formation is good, we hope to close that waterway this week, that will put the final touches on that ice bridge.
“For those that travel to and from the island via snow machine, conditions look good,” he said. “The Coast Guard is not in a position to rate the safety of ice bridges, in fact, we discourage it.”
The ice bridge from Cheboygan to Bois Blanc Island continues to form in the South Channel, as well.