Frozen lakes don’t stop shipping business

It’s winter. Thus, commercial shipping pretty much grinds to a halt this time of year.

There is no traffic through the Soo locks and into Lake Superior now, as the locks closed last week. There is some traffic on the lower lakes, but not much. For instance, on Thursday, the only traffic reported through boatnerds.com were two boats hauling road salt. The Lake Carriers Association also reported two cement carriers were still in service.

But to think there is not commercial shipping work being done right now would be a big mistake. As one of the region’s most important industries, it is imperative that work takes place 12 months a year to ensure success year after year.

At the Soo Locks, for instance, the Poe Lock will be dewatered so that a variety of maintenance projects can be completed before it reopens in March.

“The Soo Locks are vital as a single point of passage for shipping from the upper to lower Great Lakes,” said Lt. Col. Greg Turner, district engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Maintaining our existing infrastructure and building the new lock are keys to providing a resilient link in the Great Lakes navigation system now in the decades to come.”

Putting things into perspective, Turner said more than 4,500 vessels carrying up to 80 million tons of cargo maneuver through the locks annually.

While work at the locks happen at a fast pace right now, the same thing is being repeated on boats at many ports around the Great Lakes. According to the Lake Carriers Association, more than $97 million will be spent this winter on maintenance and modernization on many Great Lakes boats.

According to an association spokesman, more than 1,000 engineers, welders, pipefitters, mechanics, and electricians will work on the ships over the next two months to ensure they are ready to sail as soon as the Soo Locks open on March 25. The work is critical, he said, as many of the boats on the lakes will log more than 70,000 miles over a typical 10-month shipping season.

Statistics for 2019 still are being tabulated, and are not yet finalized. Monitoring news reports throughout the year, however, I expect final numbers will be be down somewhat compared to the numbers of 2018. However, many ports did report much better numbers, like Milwaukee and Green Bay, where a number of upgrades in port facilities were made.

In an October story in the Milwaukee Business Journal, it was reported that, through September, tonnage was up 25% at the port.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll see a good finish for the 2019 shipping season for the port and for the entire Great Lakes,” said Dean Haen, director at the Port of Green Bay. “It’s a good sign for the regional economy.”

One statistic that is known right now is the traffic of “salties” — boats that move out of the Great Lakes and out into the Atlantic Ocean to ports around the world. Traffic through the St. Lawrence Seaway by those boats was down 7% in 2019.

A number of factors contributed to that number, however. Trade war concerns impacted a large percentage of items being moved. The heavy rains of spring and early summer across much of the region impacted grain exports. And the high water levels of the Great Lakes were both a blessing and curse. While boats were able to carry more because of the high water, in many locations, the high water created swift current issues for the boats, which often needed assistance in maneuvering through such locations.

Finally, as mentioned above, water levels do significantly impact the shipping industry and ice cover plays a part in water levels.

This week, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics, Lake Huron was 24% covered by ice. The normal average this time of year is for the lake to be 29% covered.

Generally speaking, the more ice cover, the higher the water levels the next season, as there is less evaporation. Without the ice cover, more water evaporates into the air from the lakes each day.

Lake Huron definitely looks cold and foreboding right now.

But, just because it seems dormant doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of shipping work occurring around the lakes in anticipation of being out on open water in a few months from now.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.