Sault Ste. Marie, (WJMN) – The U.S. Coast Guard breaks ice each winter for commercial boats.

Matthew Anderson, lead vessel traffic management specialist at the USCG Sector Sault Sainte Marie, says they currently have a cutter near Duluth, Minnesota and have been out to Thunder Bay this season so far.

“We have the Coast Guard Cutter BISCAYNE BAY is currently in Duluth they have been working the west end of Lake Superior for the last week between Duluth, Superior and a couple times to Thunder Bay,” said Anderson.

Currently there are two vessels assigned to Operation Taconite, the largest domestic ice breaking operation in the U.S. Anderson says at times they have up to seven assigned to break ice.

“We get reports everyday from the shipping companies, what ships are expected in which ports and we have to kind of manage what cutters we have available and put those in the ports as the ships are arriving,” said Anderson. “Right now, we have some ships heading into Green Bay, we’ve sent the cutter MOBILE BAY there to prep the track in advance of their arrival.”

Anderson says it depends on the weather how many cutters might be out and where.

“If it’s colder, when you break the ice it actually refreezes very quickly and it can be more difficult to transit through the next time, we like to leave plate ice in place as long as possible unless there’s an actual transit,” said Anderson. “It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes but snow and ice acts as insulation between the cold air temperatures and the water so the more we can leave that undisturbed the less ice we actually get sometimes.”

The Coast Guard breaks ice to facilitate commerce, Anderson says millions of dollars of goods transit through particularly the St. Mary’s River and the Straits of Mackinac.

“Particularly iron ore, taconite, seeing less coal now with the coal fired power plants coming offline but they have to get to the steel mills from the head of the lakes to be able to make steel products,” said Anderson. “In the winter, during the coolest season we see a lot of salt traffic through the Straits of Mackinac. They come out of the salt mine in Goderich, Ontario going to Milwaukee, Chicago.”

Anderson says he thinks the most interesting part of ice-breaking is the dynamics of ice, how it can move and refreeze. He also says it can be challenging dealing with the cold temperatures and managing resources.

“We only have so many ice breakers and they have to be spread out across the lakes so trying to keep them in the right place at the right time can be trying,” said Anderson.

Anyone recreating on the ice should also take caution when there are ice cutters in the area. Anderson says if you see an ice cutter out on a lake, stay far away from it.