Annual Great Lakes Ice-Breaking Starts Early Due to Winter Storm

icebreaking on Great Lakes
U.S. and Canadian ice-breakers work jointly to maintain navigation on the Great Lakes (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Published Dec 28, 2022 5:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week’s massive winter storm that took aim at the central U.S. continues to cause havoc on all forms of transportation with areas around the Great Lakes receiving 40 to 50 inches of snow. The U.S. Coast Guard reports due to last week’s storm that in cooperation with the Canadian Coast Guard it started its annual ice-breaking operation earlier than normal to help in the recovery for communities along the shores and served by ships operating on the Great Lakes.

Known as operation Coal Shovel the annual ice-breaking effort commenced on Monday, December 26, 2022.  In an average year, the operation does not begin till January and runs till March or April depending on ice and weather conditions on the lakes. The domestic portion of the operation has an area of responsibility spanning from southern Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair, to the St. Clair / Detroit River system, and into Lake Erie and Lake Ontario including the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers work together in these waterways as conditions worsen throughout the winter to facilitate navigation on the Great Lakes to meet the “reasonable demands of commerce,” as well as ensure the ability to conduct search-and-rescue operations and provide critical community services. The two coast guards have a total of 11 icebreakers on the Great Lakes. Not all of them however are normally involved in Operation Coal Shovel.



Both the U.S. and Canadian fleets also assist with flood mitigation efforts when requested to do so from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, other emergency operations include opening channels to icebound communities or breaking ice for the ferries that serve them to ensure critical supplies of food, heating oil, or access to medical assistance is maintained.

The USCG’s Sector Detroit provides command and control for Operation Coal Shovel and may place restrictions or close waterways as ice conditions dictate. Due consideration is given to the need for cross channel traffic (e.g. ferries), the availability of icebreakers, and the safety of the island residents who use naturally formed ice bridges for transportation to and from the mainland.

As the 2022-2023 Operation Coal Shovel season begins, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Detroit and the Canadian Coast Guard will continue to monitor potentially hazardous ice conditions and conduct ice-breaking operations throughout the Great Lakes.