Ice Breaking Operations and Shipping in the Great Lakes

Content Type
User Story
Photo of a freighter ship crossing icy Lake Superior
Data Applications
Transportation & Safety

The Great Lakes are home to many port cities in the United States and Canada. Ice formation can be an obstacle for U.S. Coast Guard, commercial, and fishing boats. In order to understand ice formation and the types of ice in the Great Lakes, the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and the U.S. Coast Guard use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data from the NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Node to monitor six different types of ice, ice thickness, and ice cover. This risk assessment tool is known as the Ice Condition Index (ICECON).

Infographic showcasing the various types of sea ice conditions
Photos identifying the six different ice types identified by SAR. Source: Operational Ice Type Classification and Water Quality Satellite Retrievals for the Great Lakes presentation by George Leshkevich.


The U.S. Coast Guard uses ICECON to identify areas that require ice breaking operations and ship transit assistance. These ice breaking operations allow government and commercial ships to travel through the Great Lakes unobstructed.

Photo of Freighter ship traversing Icy Lake Superior
Freighter Manitowoc in Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, March 22, 2013. Credit: NOAA.


NOAA uses ICECON to provide valuable insight to Great Lakes climatology, water quality assessment, winter ice navigation, and algal blooms.  More information on this product can be found on the NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Node  website.

Animation depicting the changes between annual maximum ice cover over the Great Lakes
Gif of the maximum ice cover in the Great Lakes from 1973 - 2017.  Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.