Ice nearing record levels is giving icebreakers an intense workout on the Great Lakes and slowing or stopping traffic on the inland rivers.

As of March 4, the Great Lakes were 91% ice covered, NOAA statistics show, second only to the 94.7% in 1979 and just above the 90.7% in 1994. The long-term average is 51.4%.  

  The first icebreaking job this season for Great Lakes Towing Co., Cleveland, which has 30 2,000-hp icebreaking tugs operating throughout the lakes, was in late November, about two weeks earlier than the normal start of the season.

 And they’ve been working pretty much around the clock since, said Gregg Thauvette, vice president of operations at the tug company. Last year by early March, the company had 56 icebreaking jobs. This year, Great Lakes Towing had logged 348 over the same time span. After a brief lull, they expected to start up again toward the end of March.  

 Washington Island FerryLine’s icebreaking season started about a month earlier than it had in at least the past 10 years, said Hoyt Purinton, president and captain of the Wisconsin company located up in Door County on Lake Michigan. They’re usually ice-free by mid-April, but it may be May 1 this year. 

The Arni J. Richter, the company’s 104'×38'×10', 2,000-hp icebreaking four-season ferry, makes two scheduled trips a day, carrying island residents, food, building and heating supplies, and snowmobilers. The ferry, built in 2003, has an ice-class hull and propellers. The company is also on call for medical emergencies. They missed only one trip, and that was because of high winds and zero visibility.

“We caught a series of lucky breaks,” Purinton said, where buildups were no more than two weeks at a stretch and winds produced swells that broke the ice. On particularly cold days, the ice builds up quickly. “Once you get the icebreaker moving, that’s just fine. But it’s that first inch,” he said.

The coverage and thickness — more than two feet in many areas — is “the most I've personally experienced in my 15 years working on the lakes,” said Mark Gill, the Coast Guard’s director of vessel traffic service based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Preparations were underway for the March 25 opening of the Soo Locks, with the first Coast Guard Cutter, the Alder, a 225' multimission buoy tender, fracturing the ice in the ports of Duluth-Superior. Other cutters also will be involved.

“With the vast amount of ice covering the Great Lakes, traffic moving through the system will be grouped into convoys to ensure the safety of their movements, “ Gill said. “With so much ice and only a few icebreakers to manage it, commercial movements will be slow.” A normal three-day trip from Duluth, Minn., to Indiana Harbor was taking nine days, he said.

Barge company online advisories noted that ice shut some fleeting operations in the Chicago area and hampered movement and tow sizes elsewhere. A 26-mile portion of the Allegheny River, for example, was closed, the Corps of Engineers said, and at the Marseilles Lock and Dam on the Illinois River at Marseilles, Ill., tow widths were restricted to 105' due to ice build-up in the lock chamber.

“Ice formations are likely to continue to slow barge operations on the Illinois River and parts of the Mississippi River in the St. Louis area,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its Feb. 27 Grain TransportationReport. During the week ending Feb. 22, 282 grain barges moved down river, 17.5 percent fewer than the week before. 

Dale K. DuPont