Coast guard warns of bad ice year for Atlantic Canada ships

Several glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula pass between sharp mountain peaks and converge in a single calving front, as seen by Operation IceBridge while returning from a survey of the Ronne Ice Shelf on Nov. 1, 2012. NASA's Operation IceBridg

The Canadian Coast Guard is pleading with merchant ships to plan their voyages well in advance this year as the organization's icebreaker fleet confronts some of the worst ice conditions on the Atlantic Ocean in decades.

"Plan your voyage and we'll all get through this," said Mike Voight, the Atlantic region's director of programs. "We've got a pretty bad or challenging ice year."

The Canadian Ice Service, an arm of Environment Canada, said there is 10 per cent more ice this year compared to the 30-year average.

"We probably haven't seen a winter this bad as far as ice for the past 25 years," said Voight, referring to both the amount and thickness of the ice.

He said the Gulf of St. Lawrence is covered and some areas are "quite severe."

The few Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers based on the East Coast help commercial ships, oil tankers and ferries travel in the winter.

Voight said the coast guard has been updating the shipping companies about ice conditions so they can reroute their vessels. The organization can provide maps, satellite images and recommended routes for merchant vessels.

"Maybe they can't go around the ice this year — which is what we usually recommend — but at least go through the areas of thinnest ice," he said. "If they do become beset then we will send one of our icebreakers to assist them as best we can."

Even as the ice flushes out of the gulf, Voight said wind can continue to make breaking up thick ice in the Northumberland Strait a challenge. He said it's hard to predict what will happen over the next few months, but "it will break up and go away eventually."

Assisting merchant ships and ferries are a priority for the Canadian Coast Guard, but crews can also help sealing boats when that season starts.