In the Thick of it

Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaking Operations

This time of year it’s common to look out your window to see a field of packed ice and snow covering your beautiful harbour.

Living in a region of Canada that relies heavily on marine transportation for work, commerce and travel, ice conditions play a major role in whether schedules are met, property is damaged and people’s safety.

It’s easy to see why the Canadian Coast Guard’s (CCG) icebreaking operations are such an important part of our economy and why so many call on us for assistance during the ice season.
As mariners are aware, in the past two years, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic Canada have experienced extreme ice conditions. Cold temperatures and strong, hurricane-force winds have limited the movement of maritime traffic and the speed and efficiency of CCG icebreakers.

The ice season in Atlantic Canada generally runs from December until June each year and Ice Operations Atlantic Region provides 24-hour service, including icebreakers, to the southern and northern Gulf, the St. Lawrence and Newfoundland and Labrador.

CCG works closely with the Canadian Ice Service branch of the Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment Canada, to gather accurate and timely information as well as forecast the type and extent of ice conditions in the region. This information, in addition to radar satellite, helicopter surveillance and reports from mariners, allows the CCG to provide ice routeing and information services to mariners. Information provided to mariners includes ice charts, ice advisories, bulletins to marine shipping and recommended ice routes so ships can navigate safely through or around ice covered waters.


CCGS Ann Harvey escorting a convoy of fishing vessels during the 2014 ice season.

This helps mariners by reducing transit time, delays in ice, fuel consumption and the need for icebreaker support.

Technology has enabled us to forecast ice conditions better than ever before, however, marine weather can change quickly and dramatically. Strong winds often change direction causing problems with ice in unpredicted areas and making navigation treacherous or impossible.

We all remember the ice conditions in 2007 when nearly 100 sealing vessels were trapped off Newfoundland’s northeast coast and the severe winter last year.

Our Ice Operations team is responsible for coordinating icebreakers to escort ships through ice-infested waters, freeing trapped vessels and maintaining channels and tracks in shore-fast ice to shipping. When commercial services are unavailable and resources allow, icebreakers clear ice and break out both commercial and fishing harbours to prevent flooding, protect property and allow for marine traffic. Contrary to their name, icebreakers are not solely tasked with icebreaking operations.

These vessels assist in other CCG programs such as search and rescue, environmental response, marine navigational services and may be used to help conservation and protection personnel with enforcement and monitoring functions, or to assist the RCMP or other police.

Similar to the process of triaging hospital emergency room visits, requests for icebreaking services are assessed by Ice Operation experts and are prioritized based on available resources and published priorities.

First priority is given to emergency and distress situations, such as search and rescue, flood control and ice management. Priority is then given to ferries which provide vital transportation services to both public and commercial clients.

Next in line are ships with vulnerable or dangerous cargoes such as perishable goods or those with the potential to cause pollution, or vessels transporting cargo which is vital to the survival of communities.

The final priority is breaking out marine traffic, commercial ports and fishing harbours.

All of these priorities are important, so other types of requests for service are considered only when the availability of resources, priority of other commitments, expected volume of shipping in and out of an area, potential client base, ice conditions and funding allow.

Requests for icebreaking assistance are scheduled to ensure resources are always available for emergency or distress situations. Ice Operations will coordinate the escort of vessel convoys and the break out of multiple harbours in close proximity.

Fishing harbour breakouts are ideally scheduled at the end of the ice season and consideration is given to the whether fishing vessels are able to navigate safely, without escort, once clear of the harbour.


View from the side of the CCGS Edward Cornwallis as it clears a path through heavily packed, ridged ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

There are times ice conditions can even be too much for a large icebreaker to navigate. If conditions would endanger the ship and crew, equipment or the vessels requesting service, icebreaking service will not be provided.

CCG icebreakers, when not providing service, are kept in a state of readiness so they can react to a request within one hour.

Ice Operations aims to provide service within reasonable timeframes according to published levels of service, but weather and other factors don’t always cooperate. Depending on the location of the vessel or port requiring assistance, the availability of resources, the transit time, the capability of the assigned icebreaker and the weather, response time may be longer than expected.

The CCG Ice Operations team members know that their work is vital to the safety and livelihood of Canadians and are dedicated to providing the best service possible to ensure safe, navigable waters for all mariners.

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