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Great Lakes ice no match for Canadian Coast Guard


The Canadian Coast Guard’s annual icebreaking season on the Great Lakes is underway. When it comes to the Great Lakes, icebreaking services are provided by the Canadian Coast Guard and the United States Coast Guard working together as one team. Last season alone, both Coast Guards directly assisted 522 ship transits on the Great Lakes. These services are critical to keeping the Canadian economy moving, and facilitating trade on our shared waters year round. 

Although the St. Lawrence Seaway, Welland Canal and Sault Ste. Marie Locks are closed during the winter months, shipping is still active on the Great Lakes. The Canadian Coast Guard has two icebreakers assigned to the Great Lakes for the entire winter season: the CCGS Griffon and CCGS Samuel Risley. They are also supported by additional Coast Guard vessels during the icebreaking season.

“Ensuring that shipping continues on the Great Lakes year-round is critical to keeping our economy moving,” says Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. “Our experienced crews and staff not only ensure cargo continue to move, but they also help protect communities on the banks of the Great Lakes from flooding. We look forward to working with our partners and communities for the upcoming icebreaking season,” comments Jordan.

The CCGS Samuel Risley performs icebreaking duties near Goderich, Ontario in February 2019. (CNW Group/Canadian Coast Guard)

Canadian Coast Guard icebreaking support from shore:

Icebreaking requests are co-ordinated by our Regional Operations Centre in Montreal, along with the USCG. Daily operational conference calls are held for industry representatives to meet with Coast Guard officials and receive updates from both countries about the extent, concentration, and thickness of the ice. 

The Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services in Sarnia and Prescott, Ontario, are in contact with mariners 24-hours-a-day providing information, managing marine traffic, and responding to calls for assistance. Winter maritime search and rescue operations are coordinated by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario. Coast Guard icebreakers and other vessels may be called upon to help. Aircraft from the Department of National Defence and USCG are also involved in maritime search and rescue operations, as necessary.

Additional Coast Guard duties on the waterways during the winter months

In addition to icebreaking for the shipping industry, both the Canadian and the United States Coast Guards work to prevent the formation of ice jams and flooding. Problems occur when ice accumulates and blocks the flow of a river. Coast Guard ships are also at the ready to respond to environmental incidents and other urgent issues or emergencies.

All ice surface users should plan their ice activities carefully, use caution on the ice, and avoid shipping lanes and icebreaking operations. Broken and fragmented ice tracks and ridging left behind by passing icebreakers or commercial vessels may not freeze over immediately. This can result in hazardous conditions for ice users. In addition, newly fallen snow will obscure ship tracks. Unsafe ice conditions can persist long after icebreakers have left the area.

Quick Facts

  • Although the St. Lawrence Seaway, Welland Canal and Sault Ste. Marie Locks are closed during the winter months, shipping is still active on the Great Lakes and connecting waterways, including Lake Erie, Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, St. Clair River, Lake Huron, St. Marys River, and Georgian Bay. 
  • Coast Guard icebreaking service is an economic enabler. Icebreaking is an important government service that helps the Canadian and United States economies. 
  • In 2018-2019, south of 60 degrees, in central and eastern Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard responded to 1330 requests for icebreaking. 
  • In 2018-2019, both Coast Guards directly assisted 522 ship transits on the Great Lakes. 
  • Between December 29, 2018, and April 27, 2019 (last day of icebreaking), CCGS Amundsen, CCGS Des Groseilliers, CCGS Griffon, CCGS Martha L. Black, CCGS Pierre Radisson, and CCGS Samuel Risley travelled 19,173 kilometers escorting commercial vessels through the ice, opening shipping routes and breaking out ports throughout the Great Lakes.

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