Shipping and Logistics

Soo Locks to Open 12 Hours Early for Great Lakes Shipping Season

Written by Sandy Williams

The Soo Locks will open 12 hours early this year due to safety and economic interests. The official opening is now scheduled for noon on March 24, instead of at midnight.

VesselSooA request for an earlier opening was sent to the Army Corps of Engineers by James H.I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association. Weakley cited difficulty in spring 2020 when the first vessel to transit locks did not receive an icebreaker escort and was forced to overnight in the icefield.

“We believe a 12:00 EST opening on 24 March 2021 provides a safer timeframe for vessels to transit Whitefish Bay and the St. Mary’s River. It facilitates U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) icebreaking prior to and after the initial lock transits. It also may provide better operating conditions for Corps employees than the traditional midnight opening.”

Ice coverage on the Great Lakes as of March 15 was 7.8 percent, with significant ice remaining on the approach to the locks in Sault Ste. Marie. Coast Guard icebreakers normally escort the large iron ore freighters to and from the locks. Icebreaking is generally not engaged after sunset due to safety concerns. Ice coverage varies yearly depending on weather conditions. On March 15, 2020, ice covered 4.8 percent of the Great Lakes, but on the same date in 2019 coverage was 47.2 percent.


The need for iron ore by steel mills along the Great Lakes was mentioned as an incidental driver for the earlier opening, although safety still takes precedence.

“Although there could be some minimal economic benefits from the early opening, they are difficult to quantify and are not the primary driver,” said Weakley. “It is worth noting that steel production has increased from the pandemic-induced slump. Stockpiles should sustain the mills until the March 24 opening, but some mills lack the safety stock from previous years.”

Mark W. Barker, president of Interlake Maritime Services, which manages The Interlake Steamship Company, said a daylight opening will “allow vessels to get underway slightly ahead of normal.”

Barker added that Interlake Steamship is seeing strong demand for iron ore and looks forward to getting the fleet underway.

U.S. Steel and Cleveland Cliffs are on both ends of the iron ore transit, sending ore from the Minnesota Iron Range to their steel mills along the Great Lakes.

“We are pleased to see a slightly earlier open to the Soo Locks, which we believe will provide safer conditions for all vessels in the seasons ahead and assist in our nation’s ongoing economic recovery and strong demand for steel,” said Meghan Cox, spokesperson for U.S. Steel.

Once ore leaves the dock, it can take several days to reach its destination depending on ice coverage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it typically requires 2.5 to 3 days for iron ore from Duluth to reach Cleveland, Ohio.

By Sandy Williams,


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