Frozen Great Lakes Means Frozen Assets

It was almost painful to watch. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sun Dew this morning, bumping and grinding along the icy vastness that is now Lake Superior. The progress was achingly slow: 500 yards in three hours.

The Sun Dew was trying to cut a swath out of Duluth harbor and open up a vital navigation channel to the barge traffic now poised to depart. Poised, but that's about all.

No one is going anywhere on the Great Lakes these days. Superior is frozen over for the first time in almost a decade. Lakes Huron and Erie are completely covered in ice as well. From Minnesota to Montreal it's the same story: the barges can't get through.

The St. Lawrence Seaway officials decided this week to postpone its opening from March 25 to March 31, hoping the icy grip will be broken by then.

"If it's longer than that," said Diane Swonk, chief economist for Bank One in Chicago, "you start to get into some more major disruptions right down the supply chain."

For manufacturers dependent on things like steel, the timing is horrible. There was a slowdown in the manufacturing sector of the economy in February, so this freeze is the last thing production plants needed.

"It will exacerbate our feeling of war, weather and worry that we have out there at this stage of the game," said Swonk.

Barge Clog Stalls Commerce

While large portions of Lakes Ontario and Michigan remain navigable, the shoreline near Chicago is clogged.

At the southern tip of Lake Michigan is Calumet Harbor, into which flows the Calumet River. That river winds its way south and west across Illinois through an array of man-made canals to the Mississippi River. Barge traffic is constant in normal conditions. And vital. Huge shipments of grain and steel find their way to the Gulf of Mexico thanks to the barges that are loaded at ports along the northwest Indiana shore.

"People don't think about how these barges travel, but they really are a major form of commerce," said Swonk. "For many of these companies, there is no other form [of transport]. They're just going to have to delay all the way down the line. And that's where the real problem lies."

Keeping Calumet Harbor open is currently the job of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay. Usually, the Mobile Bay is breaking ice off Green Bay, Wis., 200 miles north of Chicago. But not this winter.

Coast Guard's ‘Ice Breaker’ Paves Way

We went aboard the cutter on Tuesday and spoke to the captain, Cmdr. John Little, as the ship crunched through ice 2 feet thick.

"For the past two weeks, they've been unable to move any barges between those ports," said Little as he gestured to the East. "That ice field stretches as far as you can see. All the way to Michigan."

The Mobile Bay works almost effortlessly to crunch a path through the ice. Actually, its bow rises up onto the ice and the weight of the cutter then breaks through and leaves an open wake behind it. Of course, a cold snap could quickly close the opening, but Little is undaunted.

"We love to help," he said.

This week it looked as if southern Lake Michigan was somewhere near Greenland. Shards of ice protruded from the blindingly white surface at odd angles as the Mobile Bay crushed its way through. Aside from a slight rolling sensation, the only way you'd know for sure that it's breaking ice is from the thudding and scraping noise it makes upon contact.

Holly Headland is happy the Mobile Bay is here. She runs a fleet of tugboats in the Indiana Harbor area and was climbing the walls as they sat idle and ice-bound.

"We're losing $30,000 to $50,000 every week that we're not moving steel," she said, "and that's significant for a small company.

"It's been very brutal. The last four weeks we've been absolutely paralyzed by the ice."

The temperature is expected to rise considerably over the weekend here in Chicago, so that may help. But there's no doubt this has been a tough winter.

To give you an idea just how tough it's been, this is the first time in 25 years that an icebreaker has been working as far south as Chicago.

And while it's very nice to see the icebreaker this far south, no one will complain if it doesn't come back for another quarter century — or more.