Several feet of snow still blanket the Northland, but in a telltale sign of spring, giant freighters have begun to move in and out of the Duluth-Superior harbor, signaling the start of the Great Lakes Shipping season this weekend.
The new season officially begins at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday morning, when the Soo Locks open, allowing ships to transit from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes, and vice versa.
But ships have already begun to move in the Duluth-Superior harbor. The 826-foot long Lee A. Tregurtha was the first ship to leave under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge Thursday morning. It left empty, to take on a load of iron ore in Marquette, Mich.
The first incoming ships are expected this weekend.
“It's going to be a full throttle start to the season,” said Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director Deb DeLuca. “It's always exciting to see the raw materials of everyday life moving through the port.”
The Duluth Port specializes in handling bulk, raw materials. Iron ore remains “king,” DeLuca said. It makes up about 55 percent of the tonnage that moves through the Duluth-Superior harbor every year. Coal and grain are also important commodities.
Last year’s iron ore shipments were a bit below average. But January shipments, before the Soo Locks closed for the season on the 15, were the highest in at least 20 years.
And with Cleveland Cliffs planning to restart NorthShore Mining next month, one of northeastern Minnesota’s six taconite operations, officials expect that momentum to continue.
“As we look to the 2023 shipping season, with all of our operations up and running, I think it’s going to be a really good year for iron mining,” said Kristen Vake, executive director of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota.
Port officials are also preparing to welcome regular ship service from Europe to the Twin Ports for the first time in decades.
The Dutch company Spliethoff plans to schedule a ship every month from Antwerp, in Belgium, past Cleveland, and on to Duluth-Superior.
“So on the way in it's carrying imports, on the way out, it's carrying exports,” said DeLuca.
“Salties,” as the international ships that cross the ocean into the Great Lakes are often known, often ship wheat from the Dakotas to Italy and northern Africa to make pasta and couscous.
But these regularly scheduled ships will carry containers that can then be loaded onto trucks and trains to transport to the Twin Cities, Fargo-Moorhead and other cities throughout the region. The ships will also be able to carry bulk cargo.
“That's a big deal,” said DeLuca, and “a big win from a supply chain perspective for the region.” Now, one customer doesn’t have to book an entire ship to transport goods through the port.
In the trucking industry, that’s called the “less than truckload” concept, explained DeLuca. This is the “less than shipload concept.”
Last year, frigid, late-winter temperatures created heavy ice cover in March that slowed the start of the shipping season. That's not an issue this year. Currently there's only about five percent ice cover on Lake Superior, compared to more than 20 percent at this time last year.
‘This year we have the reverse situation,” DeLuca said. “We're expecting it not to be an issue.”
That continues with recent trends over the last several decades. As winter air temperatures have warmed significantly over the Great Lakes, average ice coverage has declined by about 70 percent over the past half-century.
Nonetheless, thick ice still forms in the protected harbor. The Coast Guard cutter Spar and local tugboats are working to break up ice that forms in slips and along docks, to allow ships to make their first journeys of the new season.