Ice around P.E.I. forming slower than last year, but 'things can change very quickly'

The ice is forming more slowly around Prince Edward Island than last year, but the Canadian Coast Guard says that could change very quickly.

'The next few weeks will determine the severity of our ice year'

This is the view from the icebreaker Edward Cornwallis on the way to P.E.I. in March 2019. (Canadian Coast Guard)

The ice is forming more slowly around Prince Edward Island than last year, but the Canadian Coast Guard says that could change very quickly.

"We're about a month behind where we were last year," said Bradley Durnford, superintendent of icebreaking operations for Atlantic Canada.

"Give it a couple of weeks and things can change very quickly."

Last March, cold temperatures and northwest winds created a heavy ice pack around Prince Edward Island, forcing the Magdalen Islands ferry away from its regular dock in Souris.

The Canadian Coast Guard called in its heaviest icebreaker, the Louis St-Laurent, to guide the ferry into the port in Souris, but it wasn't able to get through.

A ferry bound for P.E.I. had to wait for a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker in March 2019. (Canadian Coast Guard)

"The ice to the north is not as bad as it was last year to impact the Magdalen Island ferry, but that can change in the next few weeks as we saw last year," Durnford said.

"It got quite significant there north of P.E.I., enough that it stopped the Louis St-Laurent."

This photo shows ice formed in the Northumberland Strait in January 2018. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Durnford said an ice control zone has been activated for the Northumberland Strait, which means it is mandatory for ships to have an icebreaker escort under Confederation Bridge.

"Currently around P.E.I., the ice is starting to get a little heavier now up around Summerside, down towards Charlottetown, around the bridge," Durnford said.

"It's getting a little heavy in the Northumberland Strait, but around the Island so far we're not seeing anything significant as of yet."

The coast guard icebreaker Henry Larsen was busy in January 2018 making a path through the ice in the Charlottetown Harbour. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

But Durnford said ice conditions can change quickly in the region, especially when there are storms.

"Environmental factors, like warm fronts, storm system tracks and jet stream location can affect the amount of ice that's present," Durnford said.

"It can change in a matter of days."

'Ice season meets the whales'

The coast guard is adding to its icebreaking resources around the Acadian peninsula, because of the right whale protection measures.

"What the difference is, in the last few years, is that we're running up against the right whales arriving in the gulf," Durnford said.

"So the ice season kind of meets the whales once the ice starts melting, the whales come in and that affects the fishery."

Another view from the Edward Cornwallis on its way to Charlottetown in March 2019. (Canadian Coast Guard)

Durnford said the coast guard is doing what it can to open up harbours as early as possible for crab and lobster fishermen. 

"Positioning an icebreaker in there year-round would not be an option, you'd never keep ahead of it, you wouldn't be able to keep the ports open," Durnford said. 

"As soon as we see that change happening, where the ice is starting to clear, we'll start breaking out harbours and getting fishermen out as soon as we can."

These maps compare the ice cover around P.E.I. in January 2019, left, and January 2020, right. They were part of a coast guard briefing on icebreaking operations in 2020. (Canadian Coast Guard)

Additional icebreakers

The Canadian Coast Guard said it is beefing up its icebreaking fleet, with the addition of the Captain Molly Kool in 2019, and another icebreaker to be added in 2020. 

The coast guard has already been busy, with a call from a boat stuck in ice off New Brunswick Monday night, as well as requests from tankers and cargo boats heading to P.E.I. later this week.

"The next few weeks will determine the severity of our ice year, it is tracking to be a little bit tough in the gulf if conditions keep worsening," Durnford said.

"We'll know more in the next few weeks."

More P.E.I. news

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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