Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - The long, narrow band of open water along Lake Superior's North Shore that served as a shipping channel for the season's first vessels has opened significantly, thanks in large to warmer temps and shifting winds.
According to Duluth Seaway Port Authority facilities manager Jim Sharrow, that means U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard cutters can stop their trans–Superior escorts and focus more of their energy on clearing shipping channels.
"That will greatly increase the number of ships that can be moving through the system," said Sharrow from Port Authority headquarters in Duluth.
But with 60% of Superior's surface still ice–coated--especially around the St. Mary's River--vessel movement is still slow.
Currently, six commercial vessels are being guided by four Coast Guard cutters to the Saint Mary's River. Ice conditions turned Thursday morning's 18–mile trip through Whitefish Bay into a 7–hour ordeal.
Five of them are loaded with ore, heading for steel plants in dire need of raw materials on the other Great Lakes.
When the cutters push through, they'll turn right around to guide 10 more ships into Lake Superior to load high–demand cargo, like ore and coal, for Michigan.
"These are all very critical cargoes right now for American industry," added Sharrow, "and for power plants that are depending on the coal."
Since the start to the shipping season, only two vessels loaded with coal have made it down bound, through the Soo Locks, to a Marquette power plant.
"The power plants, basically, were out of coal," said Sharrow, "and these were power plants that needed coal to be able to stay in operation."
But there's a silver lining to all this brutal winter, says Sharrow.
Port officials expect this year's vessel tonnage limits to be higher, because water levels are up 13 inches compared to last year.
Sharrow credits significant ice formation and wintry precipitation.
The current readings project an additional 3,200 tons of cargo for every 1,000–footer.
"If they can keep that up through the year, that's the equivalent to two additional cargoes in the same amount of time," said Sharrow, staying positive.
If conditions permit, the Duluth Superior Harbor could see up–bound lakers looking to load up on raw materials by the end of next week.