​Why breaking ice on rivers gets harder with each pass

NEW YORK -- When this winter is over, the lasting memory of the record cold will certainly include the sight of ice breakers. The vessels are tasked with a critical job that impacts everything from transportation to the economy. As we found out, it's a job that gets tougher by the day.

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Lieutenant Ken Sauerbrunn
CBS News

Lieutenant Ken Sauerbrunn commands the United States Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay -- which means long days breaking ice on a 60-mile section of the frozen Hudson River south of Albany, New York.

"This is the worst winter we have seen since 2004" said Sauerbrunn.

Sauerbrunn and his 16-man crew measure the "worst winter" in inches of ice. He described one area as having ice upwards of a foot and a half thick.

The S-shaped bow and football-shaped hull are designed to crush the ice and clear a channel 250 feet wide so barges can navigate.

"Our mission is to keep the traffic flowing to the best of our abilities and get the products that they are carrying to the consumer," Sauerbrunn said.

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Vessels navigate the icy waters of the Hudson River
CBS News

For instance: 75 percent of the nation's home heating oil is consumed in the northeast and much of it travels on barges up and down the Hudson.

The thermometer reads 19 degrees out on the river. Factor in the wind chill and it feels like 4 degrees, which is relatively balmy compared to the coldest day they've had this winter -- just last week --when it felt like minus 20.

The crew faces an unfortunate law of nature: the ice they break folds on top of itself and refreezes even thicker. That means the hard work they put in today, only guarantees them a tougher day tomorrow

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.