U.S. Coast Guard's ship pushes through a frozen Lake Michigan

Posted at 7:15 PM, Feb 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-28 20:23:06-05

Out on Lake Michigan the ice conditions can change weekly, daily, or by the hour this time of year. It’s those changing conditions that have brought scientists and the U.S. Coast Guard together this week to try and better determine what's out there for ice thickness and whether or not it's safe for travel, all by looking at images from space.

Traveling from Sturgeon Bay to the Bay of Green Bay there's not a lot of activity in the dead of winter. But the Coast Guard and its 680 ton ice breaker is still responsible for keeping some lanes of traffic open on the ice.

"The Mobile Bay works throughout the great lakes all year round. In the winter time we generally focus our energies on Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay area and the Mackinaw Straights," says Lt. Andy Daum of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Their goal on board the Mobile Bay is to make sure freighters that move product, or just need repairs, can make it back to port despite the ice.

"We're ready to break 32 inches of plate ice at a constant speed of three knots (4 ½ m.p.h.). But if we do get stopped, we do what's called backing and ramming. It’s where we back up about three ship lengths and then we give it full throttle," adds Lt. Daum.

But on Wednesday, the Coast Guard wasn't just opening up lanes for traffic. They teamed up with a team of scientists so they can better understand ice thickness and how to determine such a thing by just looking at pictures. It’s all in an effort for anglers, snowmobilers, even freighters, so that they can find the safest way to travel in the future.

"So with this type of map you can decide where to go depending on the purpose of the operation," says Son Nghiem a Senior Research Scientist from NASA.

The scientists are comparing satellite images with ice samples collected from the frozen lake to see if they can determine where the safest routes for travel are. The routes of safe travel may constantly change, but scientists believe that by identifying what a particular thickness looks like from above, they can help map those safe routes more accurately in the future.

"For each different class of ice there is a range of thickness associated with that.... So with this kind of map you can decide where to go depending on the purpose of the operation,” adds Nghiem.

Nghiem says that in the future scientists may be able to produce maps on a weekly basis, with the help of satellite images, that would show freighters and even fisherman what route would be the safest for them to travel.

This study still has a long way to go, but researchers are confident that information like this could be a relevant safety precaution, that could be utilized by many in the not so distant future.