This year's shipping season is getting off to a slow start due to record levels of ice on the Great Lakes, including ice that's five feet thick in some parts of the Duluth harbor.
Coast Guard cutters and local tugs are working hard to break up the ice, but maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that as of last week, 90 percent of Lake Superior was still covered by ice. That's down from a peak of 95 percent earlier this year.
"Because of the severe ice conditions, several fleets have delayed their first sailing until early April," Jim Sharrow, with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told KSTP-TV.
Nine Coast Guard cutters across the Great Lakes are prepared to clear channels and escort ships, and two more cutters are on the way from Canada, Sharrow said.
While the ice is good business for civilians who operate ice-breaking tugs, Lake Carriers' Association Vice President Glen Nekvasil told Minnesota Public Radio News that it's bad for the shipping industry. Nekvasil said heavy ice has prevented some cargo from being delivered and delayed some trips by several days.
"We fully expect that transit times will be two to three times their normal length, and that the Coast Guard (cutters) will be leading convoys across Lake Superior in the beginning," he said.
Sharrow said this means that after a ship is loaded with taconite pellets in Two Harbors, it will have to wait at port for other ships to load.
"So it may represent an extra two or three day delay before they can even leave their loading port or unloading port," he said. "It adds up quickly, when you get to five to six days, you've lost an entire cargo for the season."
The iron ore trade was down 35 percent in January.
The Helen H is one civilian tug working hard to break up the ice. Capt. Mike Ojard, who has spent all of his 68 years among the tugs on the North Shore of Lake Superior, said this is the worst ice on the lake in 20 years.
"Last year we were breaking ice on the 4th of May. This year will be worse. There's a lot of slips that will have to be opened up later in the season," he told MPR News. "I'm sure we'll have ice with us way into June."