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Ice Operations

February 5, 2014
Wetzel Chronicle

Over the last few weeks, we all have had to deal with the problems created when Mother Nature sends a Polar Vortex or an Arctic Express our way. Frozen water lines, snow-covered driveways, along with the general nuisance of the foul weather can be a real headache.

But, for some the colder than normal weather creates problems you or I may not have thought about. The Ohio River is the main artery for moving many products up and down the river in large quantities, economically. But, when sub-zero temperatures freeze that waterway, it creates problems for the barge companies and those who operate the locks and dam system on the river.

Last weekend, I was invited to visit the Hannibal Locks and Dams by Lockmaster Jim Beavers to see how the dam personnel handle the heavy ice flows on the river. The ice formation above that dam last week stretched 40 miles upriver to the Pike Island Dam. At the time of my visit, it was still up river nearly 35 miles. This heavy surface ice creates problems not only for barge traffic, but the locks and dams on the Ohio River.

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The ice pack thickness measured anywhere from an inch to upwards of six inches on the surface of the river. Large barges that push 15 jumbo barges must navigate through thick ice and try to stay in the main channel. Ice buildup in front of the tows and their barges can make navigating more difficult. Last week a full tow of 15 became stuck in the ice near Bellaire. After being helped to free itself, it continued on down river to Marietta where it once again became locked in the heavy ice.

The Ohio River does not have ice breakers that keep channels clear of ice, like the Great Lakes. So rarely does ice pose a problem on the Ohio River that ice breakers would be impracticable. The job of keeping the river open falls to the many crews of the different barge lines that work together to keep the water open and navigable in times like these. Many of the barge companies have scaled back the barge loads to only two wide and four long. This helps boat pilots and their crews to navigate the heavy ice.

The reduced barge and tow size is a big help when it comes to passing through lock chambers that now are dealing with thick ice above the dams. Lockmaster Beavers gives a great deal of credit to the boat crews for helping to keep the locks in operation during these difficult times. The last time the dam operators had to deal with thick packed ice was back in 1993.

When ice is expected to hinder operations, the crew of the Hannibal Locks makes preparations to keep their main chamber open for river traffic. They begin by placing emergency bulk heads in the mouth of the smaller chamber. Two bulkheads, each measuring 110 feet long, 32 feet high, and weighing 285 tons, are put into place to block the waters flow from the upper pool.

As barges approach the locks, ice is pushed along the wall into the upper approach of the locks' chambers. Barges then stop and tie off before the chamber gates are opened, which allows the lock operation personnel to deal with the ice accumulation. The simple but skilled operation of moving ice from the front of the chamber gates begins with large volumes of air being pushed up from the bottom just ahead of the lock gates.

As the turbulence of bubbles begin moving the ice away from the gate, the dam's overhead crane begins to lift the top section of the emergency bulk head in the smaller chamber. As it opens, surface water along with ice begins to be pulled from the large chamber approach. The bubbles continue to help move ice in the direction of the opening in the bulk head. The upper section of the bulk head is opened, seven feet to draw water and ice flow over the man made water falls in a huge cascade of green water filled with chunks of ice weighing tons. The roar of cold water gave me an understanding of the rushing waters' power. After a while the maneuver has cleared the approach and the tow can safely enter the chamber free of large amounts of ice. The opening in the bulk head is then closed until the next barge pushes ice into the chamber approach.

If ice were to be allowed to enter the chamber, it would begin to pack alongside and in front of barges along the walls and near the gates. After a while the possibility of a barge being stuck in a frozen chamber could be a real event. If this were to happen, movement on the river could come to a stop. The lockmaster also describes how ice can be flushed through the locks in another operation to help prevent ice build up inside the chamber.

Formation of ice in the cold temperatures is evident in the picture of a crew member working on the front deck of the barge while locking though the dam. The front deck of the barge is completely enclosed in ice that froze as the barge pushed its way down river through water spray last week, when temperatures were below zero.

The highly trained and skilled crew of the Hannibal Dam work around the clock to keep the lock chambers opens. Their efforts are greatly helped by the cooperation of the many barge companies and their dedicated crews. With their help, boats manage to break up freezing ice as they move in and out of the lock chamber. With the colder than normal temperatures this can be a continuous and difficult operation for all those who work the river at this time of year.

We seldom think of those who pass by on the river and those who operate the locks to help the many barges navigate the river in cold weather. But, the lights in our homes burn bright because they help millions of tons of coal reach their destination at nearby power plants. The Ohio River plays a big part in all our lives; we need to look through the cold and ice to appreciate the jobs of those who work on the river as we look Through the Lens.



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