Tag Archives: Great Lakes

Low water in Great Lakes the next challenge to economy

From the New York Times

Drought and other factors have created historically low water marks for the Great Lakes, putting the $34 billion Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway shipping industry in peril, a situation that could send ominous ripples throughout the economy.

Water levels in the Great Lakes have been below their long-term averages during the past 14 years, and this winter the water in Lakes Michigan and Huron, the hardest-hit lakes, dropped to record lows, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Keith Kompoltowicz, the chief of watershed hydrology with the corps’s Detroit district, said that in January “the monthly mean was the lowest ever recorded, going back to 1918.”

While spring rains have helped so far this year, levels in all five Great Lakes are still low by historical standards, so getting through the shallow points in harbors and channels is a tense affair.

The combination of low water and infrequent dredging is annoying to recreational boaters, but the biggest impact is economic: shippers, carriers and the industries that rely on the bulk materials like limestone, iron ore, coal and salt are hugely dependent on lake travel.

Lakers can move products at prices that beat rail or road by as much as $20 per ton of cargo, using much less fuel. Given those advantages and an improving economy, about 30 ships are being built this year to run cargo on the Great Lakes, according to Craig H. Middlebrook, the deputy administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.

But for now, low water is “hammering our industry,” said Glen G. Nekvasil, the vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, a trade group. To cope, shipowners have had to lighten the loads on their boats, making hauling less efficient and profitable.

“When the water level drops as it has, we’re ripping tons out of the boat,” said Mark Barker, the president of the Interlake Steamship Company, which owns the Dorothy Ann.

In the Dorothy Ann pilothouse, 70 feet above the water, the sudden appearance of dashes on the screen was a moment of tight shoulders and held breath. The boat had already been lightened by dropping off thousands of tons of cargo earlier in its journey to float at this depth, and the boat glided the last few hundred feet over the soft bottom.

A large laker, 1,000 feet long, will lose 250 to 270 tons for every inch the water level drops, Mr. Nekvasil said. That can add up to 324,000 tons a season per boat, he said.

The impact does not stop with shippers. “The aggregate impact over time will be to raise the cost of commodities, which in turn will raise the price of manufacturing goods, which in turn raises the price to the consumer,” said Richard D. Stewart, the director of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that inadequate harbor maintenance increased the cost of traded products by $7 billion in 2010 and that this cost would increase to $14 billion by 2040 if the work was not stepped up.

The weirdest part is that the money is there dredge the harbours and help fix the problem.

The owners of the big lake boats like the Dorothy Ann and its barge, the Pathfinder, contend that the federal government has fallen down on the job of dredging these harbors, which could help compensate for the low water. “If we had the dredging, we wouldn’t have the dashes,” said Mr. Barker, president of the Interlake Steamship Company.

He said the Great Lakes ports could be properly dredged for $200 million. “Pretty much all we’re asking for is the cost of a highway interchange,” he said.

The federal government has a trust fund for harbor dredging, based on taxes on cargo. The fund is supposed to receive $1.8 billion in the 2013 fiscal year, but the Army Corps of Engineers requested to spend only $850 million of the fund, a situation that led Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, to hold up a piece of paper that read “I.O.U. $6.95 Billion,” the surplus in the fund since it was established in 1986, in a hearing with Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. The Water Resources Development Act, which was drafted to address many of these issues, has passed the Senate and is under consideration in the House.

Don T. Riley, a former official with the Army Corps of Engineers who works with a Washington lobbying and consulting firm, Dawson & Associates, acknowledged that the extra money could seem absurd. “You’ve got this major surplus — that just sounds so dumb not to spend at least what you take in because that’s what you’re paying for,” he said. But the corps spends only what Congress appropriates, he said, and tapping the fund is not necessarily easy: even if money has been collected, ordering it to be spent increases the appropriation for the corps, and that can be politically troublesome in times of budget cutting.

The long term effect of this is that if the harbours don’t function at current water levels, it will mean more trucks on the roads moving goods through our cities that are congested already.

The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

 

Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored)

I started reading about the IPO of Manchester United and I ended up reading about the Edmund Fitzgerald.  While there are a lot of theories about why the great ship went down, the best one I have read is that it was just not structurally sound.

When Bethlehem Steel Corporation permanently laid up the Fitzgerald’s sister ship, SS Arthur B. Homer, just five years after going to considerable expense to lengthen her, questions were raised as to whether both ships had the same structural problems. The two vessels were built in the same shipyard using welded joints instead of the riveted joints used in older ore freighters. Riveted joints allow a ship to flex and work in heavy seas, while welded joints are more likely to break.  Reports indicate that repairs to the Fitzgerald’s hull were delayed in 1975 due to plans to lengthen the ship during the upcoming winter layup. The Homer was lengthened to 825 feet (251 m) and placed back in service by December 1975, not long after the Fitzgerald foundered. In 1978, without explanation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation denied permission for the chairman of the NTSB to travel on the Homer. The Homer was permanently laid up in 1980 and broken for scrap in 1987.

Retired GLEW naval architect Raymond Ramsey, one of the design team on the hull of the Fitzgerald,  reviewed her increased load lines, maintenance history, along with the history of long ship hull failure and concluded that the Fitzgerald was not seaworthy on November 10, 1975. He stated that planning the Fitzgerald to be compatible with the constraints of the St. Lawrence Seaway had placed her hull design in a “straight jacket”.  The Fitzgerald’s long ship design was developed without the benefit of research, development, test, and evaluation principles while computerized analytical technology was not available at the time she was built. Ramsey noted that the Fitzgerald’s hull was built with an all-welded (instead of riveted) modular fabrication method, which was used for the first time in the GLEW shipyard. Ramsey concluded that increasing the hull length to 729 feet (222 m) resulted in a L/D slenderness ratio (the ratio of the length of the ship to the depth of her structure)  that caused excessive multi-axial bending and springing of the hull, and that the hull should have been structurally reinforced to cope with her increased length.

Former crew statements seem to back this theory up.

The stress fracture theory was supported by the testimony of former crewmen. Former Second Mate Richard Orgel, who served on the Fitzgerald in 1972 and 1973, testified that “the ship had a tendency to bend and spring during storms ‘like a diving board after somebody has jumped off.'” Orgel was quoted as saying that the loss of the Fitzgerald was caused by hull failure, “pure and simple. I detected undue stress in the side tunnels by examining the white enamel paint, which will crack and splinter when submitted to severe stress.” George H. “Red” Burgner, the Fitzgerald‘s Steward for ten seasons and winter ship-keeper for seven years, testified in a deposition that a “loose keel” contributed to the vessel’s loss. Burgner further testified that “the keel and sister kelsons were only ‘tack welded'” and that he had personally observed that many of the welds were broken.

And then there is this picture of another Great Lakes freighter Algoport breaking up while being towed to China for conversion.  High seas just bent the freighter in half.

Great Lakes freighter Algoport sinkingGreat Lakes freighter Algoport sinking
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It’s amazing reading through all of the theories how much contradictory information there is.  Rouge waves, clamps not holding, bad seamanship, hitting a shoal, structural failure.  All are possibilities and we still don’t know what really happened.

The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes

In honor of World Water Day, I present this post and video from 1968.

In this short documentary from conservationist Bill Mason, he illustrates that although the Great Lakes have had their ups and downs, nothing has been harder to take than what humans have done to them lately. In the film, a lone canoeist lives through the changes of geological history, through Ice Age and flood, only to find himself in the end trapped in a sea of scum.

Some background on the film from the NFB

The film was conceived and produced for the educational market. It was to be on the evolution of the Great Lakes (the working title was Evolution of the Great Lakes) and man’s impact on them. Mason agreed to a lighter approach for the film but was disappointed when the producer made several changes to his finished work. Test screenings proved to be very successful with children and teachers, who appreciated the humorous approach to the subject. The feedback was so positive that the film was blown up to 35 mm for theatrical distribution. Nevertheless, Mason was not happy with the finished product, feeling he had lost creative control over it.

All I could think of while watching this is that if this was bothering him back in 1968, it’s condition right now much really devastate him.

Of course if a musical educational video doesn’t capture your mood today, here is a full length documentary by Jacques Cousteau on the St. Lawrence Seaway.