This winter's harsh weather has brought a record amount of ice to Lake Michigan. The National Weather Service measured the ice cover on Saturday at more than 93-percent, which is the most ice on the lake since the start of record keeping in 1973. The old record was set in 1977.
Forecasters say the rapid increase of ice build-up came with the intense cold we experienced from late February into the first week of March. The U.S. Coast Guard is calling for patience as it ramps up ice breaking operations on the Great Lakes this week.
With a record amount of ice to break, there's growing concern ships carrying raw materials will be way behind schedule this spring.
With 3 to 4 feet of ice covering the Bay of Green Bay, the start of the 2014 shipping season is a long ways off. "Indications are it's going to be some time yet, they've got limited assets and a lot of ice to deal with," says Brown County Port Director Dean Haen.
And according to the Coast Guard, the ice is so thick, only one of the nine vessels in its ice breaking fleet can work alone.
"This year, because we have so much ice and it's so much thicker, what we're finding is our single assets are really challenged to be able to work independently and so we're having to pool our resources for lack of a better term and we're taking our big breaker, Mackinaw, and joining it with our smaller breakers," says Mark Gill, U.S. Coast Guard Director of Vessel Traffic Services.
While ice breaking around Sturgeon Bay begins Monday, the vessels will then head north toward Escanaba and continue east to the Straits of Mackinac. Where the ice breakers travel is based on a priority list and the Port of Green Bay isn't near the top.
"This year with the expansive ice I would not be surprised to see us breaking ice toward the latter part of May," says Gill
Haen says by mid April, many terminal operators along the Fox River will be in dire need of raw materials. He's also worried about the ice breakers holding up.
"I'm fearful that the Coast Guard assets, something is going to happen, if they start having any breakdowns, I mean these vessels have already been working a lot of hours and it's a lot of stress on them," says Haen.
Once enough ice is broken for ships to start navigating the Great Lakes, it appears they will be forced to travel in groups. "We're probably going to have to restrict vessels to what we call convoys, where we'll group vessels in groups of say 4 or 5, 6 vessels at a time and then put a big breaker in front and a couple smaller breakers to kind of break ice around them and we'll move them sequentially and so where a normal transit say from Duluth to southern Lake Michigan and back may take three days, in the convoy it may take as much as 12-14 days," says Gill.