Market Matters Blog

Warm Winter Keeps Great Lakes Nearly Ice-Free

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder arrived in the Duluth harbor two weeks ago and will begin her spring ritual of breaking ice on March 7. (Photo courtesy of Ken Newhams, Duluth Shipping News)

Ice cutters will have an easier job on Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes, and shipping could begin earlier than normal on the upper Mississippi River thanks to warm weather this winter.

The ice cutter Alder is currently parked in the Twin Ports as she awaits her spring ritual of cutting ice on Lake Superior. She is scheduled to begin cutting ice on Monday, March 7. She should have an easier time of it than in past years since the ice measurement on Lake Superior as of March 6 is at 12.5% versus last year at the same time of 92% and 93.8% in 2014 on the same date. Overall, the Great Lakes ice coverage as of March 6 was at 19.7% versus 83.7% in 2015 on the same date.

According to the Duluth Shipping news via the USCG, "U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder will commence spring break-out operations in the Duluth-Superior area Monday, March 7, 2016. Initially, ice-breaking operations will occur inside the Duluth and Superior Harbors. The ice breaking work will expand in coming weeks to prepare Two Harbors, Minnesota; Taconite Harbor, Minnesota; Silver Bay, Minnesota; and Thunder Bay, Ontario, for commercial ship movements."

"Unlike the past two winters, this year was unseasonably warm. Regional ice cover is not as expansive, nor did it reach traditional thicknesses. The forecast for the next seven to 10 days calls for temperatures conducive to rapid deterioration of ice. These operations will continue periodically over the next few days and weeks to prepare regional waterways for the start of the Great Lakes commercial navigation season."

I asked Adele Yorde, public relations director for the Duluth Seaway port Authority, if the 2016 shipping season would open early due to the low ice coverage. She told me, "No early open for the 2016 navigation season -- even with the low/no-ice conditions. With demand for iron ore so diminished, none of the fleets are clamoring to sail earlier than usual. Soo Locks still plan to reopen on schedule on March 25 (midnight leading into the March 26). The Locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway (Montreal/Lake Ontario section) are scheduled to reopen at 8 a.m. on March 23; the Welland Canal is set to open the morning of March 21."

Once the Seaway opens, oceangoing vessels or saltwater vessels, called salties, make their way to Great Lakes destinations, including the Twin Ports for grain loading. Last year, on Monday, April 14, the Port of Duluth-Superior welcomed Kom, the first saltie to have made full transit of the 2,342-mile Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. Expectations are that we will see the first saltie sooner than that in 2016.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation reported that for 2015, "Grain volumes on the Seaway amounted to 10.8 million metric tons, one of the strongest years in recent memory. The Port of Thunder Bay, the principal point of entry for grain into the Great Lakes/Seaway System, reported its second-best season in 15 years. Combined with grain being loaded onto ships from other ports such as Hamilton, Duluth/Superior and Toledo, agricultural commodities have become increasingly important to the Great Lakes/Seaway System."


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, is reopening Lock and Dam 9, near Lynxville, Wisconsin, five days earlier than expected, according to an email sent to DTN by Patrick Moes, public affairs for USACE. The lock was closed to all navigation traffic Dec. 9, 2015, for winter maintenance. "An extremely efficient work crew and mild winter allowed for the repairs to be completed earlier than scheduled. The Corps originally projected reopening the lock March 17," said Moes.

Once the lock is open, navigation traffic will be able to move north of Lock 9. Lake Pepin ice may delay navigation reaching St. Paul, Minnesota, but Corps surveyors started measuring the ice thickness on Feb. 17 and will continue to do so bi-weekly, reporting the information to navigation officials. With the unseasonably warm temperatures blanketing parts of Minnesota, it is likely that the river shipping season may get an early start in 2016. Moes said, "The earliest that navigation has started in St. Paul is March 4. It has happened three times since 1981 -- 1983, 1984 and 2000."

In 2015, the motor vessel New Dawn moved through Lock and Dam 2, near Hastings, Minnesota, after breaking through Lake Pepin ice on March 25. Once Lake Pepin gives up her ice, we will see barges heading north. Ceres Barge Line noted that there is a good supply of barges making their way out of St. Louis in to the UMR, which is pressuring barge freight in the St. Paul District and Middle Mississippi. "Shippers will not have to worry about empties for a bit as the empties are plentiful," according to Ceres.

Cheap barge freight is good for basis levels, but with a slowdown in demand recently, river basis levels have been mostly steady. The Gulf basis was stronger last week, as most of the high-water conditions from the recent flooding have been lifted. However, Tom Russell, Russell Marine, told me that, "The high water did cause excessive silting at SWP, forcing pilots to reduce draft down to 42 feet max. There are seven dredges working SWP that will continue to work until normal draft of 45 feet or more is restored. Otherwise, barge and ship traffic is moving normally in the port."

"Tow companies have been upside down and out of sync during high water that occurred during January and February. The result was a backlog of barges waiting to be hauled. Towboats are now returning to normal traffic patterns and ironing out the delays." Russell added that, overall, "March river conditions currently indicate smooth sailing."

Here is a link to the March 2 ice measurements:…

Next measurements will be taken March 9.

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