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'Cork in a bottle': Ship jammed in icy Seaway

Michelle Laffin

Prolonged arctic cold is wreaking havoc on the maritime industry across the Great Lakes. The latest problem: A commercial freighter is stuck in ice in a lock near Massena, N.Y., and it's preventing the St. Lawrence Seaway from closing for the winter.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. said in a news release that the Federal Biscay is “immobilized due to the heavy ice build-up on the lock wall as well as on the vessel’s hull,” but there is no damage.

Workers are trying to free the ship from the Snell Lock. It's one of a series of locks on the Seaway, which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Michael Folsom of the the Ship Watcher website says the deep freeze hit just as the last ships of the season were heading east to leave the Seaway system.

"As the Federal Biscay entered the lock, it pushed ice in with it. And there’s only a few feet on either side of the ship within the lock and it just created this logjam," he says. "It’s the cork in the bottle, and that cork’s in so tight, even three tugs can’t get it out."

The Federal Biscay is blocking four other international freighters from continuing downriver toward Montreal.

Seaway officials say the shipping channel will close once all five ships get through. That won’t be easy, with more arctic cold forecast through the weekend.

Over the past two winters, there wasn’t much ice cover on the Great Lakes. That changed with this month’s deep freeze.

Frigid temperatures have frozen more than 40 percent of Lake Erie’s surface, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA.  Scientists there predict ice cover could jump to almost 90 percent by Sunday.

This time last year, ice barely covered 2 percent of the lake.

The ice and cold temperatures canceled a local group’s polar bear plunge at Edgewater Beach, and prevented a ship from entering Cleveland Harbor without the Coast Guard’s assistance.

With about two weeks left in the shipping season, the U.S. Coast Guard is working to make sure the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes, are clear before they shut down on Jan. 15.

The St. Lawrence Seaway typically closes Dec. 31, but that closing has been delayed.

The Lake Carriers Association, an organization of companies that operate ships on the Great Lakes, says that while the Coast Guard is doing a great job with the ice, the region still needs another icebreaker to lighten the load for the cutters currently in service.

The good news, according to the association, is that cargo was up this shipping season.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.
Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.
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