Coast Guard crews race against Old Man Winter on the Great Lakes

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw hook the ice-covered Mackinac Bridge Lighted Bell Buoy 1 in the Straits of Mackinac Dec. 11, 2013 as they prepare to decommission the buoy for the winter season.

The early blast of winter weather has the U.S. Coast Guard kicking off its seasonal ice-breaking operations earlier than usual.

The U.S.C.G is wrapping up its annual Operation Fall Retrieve as fast as possible, before ice floes set and damage the navigational buoys.

With the buoy retrieval 85-percent complete, the U.S.C.G. has begun ice-breaking operations as part of Operation Taconite in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan. the St. Mary's River, the Straits of Mackinac and northern Lake Huron.

"Operation Taconite has been officially kicked off, the earliest in recent history," said Lt j.g. Katherine Pierson, Coast Guard 9th District Aids-to-Navigation and Domestic Ice Division. "We have already tasked a few of our cutters with breaking ice in Lake Superior and the St. Marys River, and several more units are fastidiously removing buoys as the lakes are experiencing rapid ice growth."

The Coast Guard works closely with the Canadian Coast Guard and maritime industry representatives to ensure critical shipping paths are open for transit.

Domestic ice breaking is normally conducted for four basic purposes: search and rescue, urgent response to vessels beset by ice, assisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with community service requests such as flood relief, and facilitation of navigation to meet the reasonable demands of the maritime industry. Other emergency services include the opening of channels to icebound communities to ensure critical supplies of food, heating oil, and access to medical care.

When both ice-breaking operations are up and running, there will be nine district icebreakers and several Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers that can provide assistance during the 2013/2014 ice-breaking season.

As a result of the ice-breaking operations, certain waterways may close after consideration is given to the protection of the marine environment, waterway improvements, aids to navigation, the need for cross-channel traffic (e.g. ferries) and the availability of icebreakers. Another important consideration is the safety of residents of Great Lakes islands and other remote locations who use naturally formed ice bridges for transportation to and from the mainland.

The Coast Guard advises all recreational ice users to plan their activities carefully, use caution on the ice, and stay away from shipping channels.