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Coast Guard launches annual ice-breaking operation on eastern Great Lakes

Don Detloff
U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard launched Operation Coal Shovel this week. That’s the yearly effort to break up ice throughout much of the Great Lakes so that shipping traffic can continue through the winter months.

The ice-breaking operation is done jointly with the Canadian Coast Guard. It extends from southern Lake Huron through the Detroit River channel, all the way through Lake Ontario and up to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Adeeb Ahmad is the public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s Detroit sector, which manages the operation. He said it usually begins in January, but started early this year because of the huge winter storm that hit much of the country.

In addition to clearing the way for ship traffic, Ahmad said the operation also opens channels to icebound island communities and breaks ice for the ferries that bring them food and other critical supplies. The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have a total of 11 ice breakers on the Great Lakes, though not all are normally involved in Operation Coal Shovel.

Ahmad said it’s crucial for people who plan to be out fishing or doing other activities on the ice to know the operation’s schedule. “If a vessel is coming through, they should be aware and be prepared to leave,” he said.

He warned that people have been stranded on ice floes as a result of ice-breaking in the past. “As the ice breaks up, a group of people are on the ice, and it breaks up and it starts floating away,” Ahmad said. “They can't get back to land.”

Ahmad said people who plan to be out on the ice should also take basic, common-sense precautions to avoid becoming stranded or getting into other dangerous situations. He noted that while the Coast Guard can and does perform winter rescue operations, “It's not really quick that our assets can get to someone for an ice rescue case. It can take some time, and it's pretty dangerous for our crews as well.”

Ahmad said the Detroit sector’s Facebook page will provide updates on Operation Coal Shovel’s schedule. People can also download the U.S. Coast Guard app, or call the Detroit Command Center for up-to-date information.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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