Energy & Environment

Great Lakes ice cover at record low

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
FILE – Lake Michigan is covered with snow and ice in Chicago, Jan. 17, 2022. La Niña, a weather pattern characterized by cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, is returning for a rare third winter, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. That means December, January and February are likely to bring drier than average conditions across the southern states and wetter than average weather for areas including the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

Ice coverage on the Great Lakes has hit record lows in mid-February, following unseasonably warm weather in the Midwest and Canada.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that ice covers only 5.7 percent of the Great Lakes as of Thursday, the lowest figure for this time of year since NOAA began keeping detailed records in 1973.

Ice covered about 40 percent of the Great Lakes on Feb. 16, 2022, and 42 percent of the area on the same date in 2021, according to the data.

NOAA expects similar ice coverage — around 35-40 percent — during this time of the year, as peak ice coverage usually occurs between mid-February and early March. However, coverage peaked at 21 percent earlier this month following a regional cold snap and has rapidly reduced since, according to data.

The agency attributed the coverage to an unseasonably warm January — when the temperature was about 5.1 degrees warmer than average nationwide.

“We see signals of a shift from snow to rain. We see winter snow storms, which can have record snow amounts, followed by rain and melting,” University of Michigan climate science professor Richard Rood said in a statement. “The message? There is definitive warming.”

“There is an accumulation of heat and its effects throughout the basin. Declining lake ice is part of this coherent story of accumulation of heat,” Rood added.

The next lowest figure for mid-February came in 2012, when 7.1 percent of the lake was covered by ice. Only one other time — in 2002 — has the figure gone below 10 percent on this date.

The low ice cover may put coastlines at an increased risk of erosion or contribute to more severe snow storms, according to NOAA researcher Ayumi Fujisaki-Manome. 

“The moisture and heat from the lake surface water are absorbed into the atmosphere by storm systems, and then fall back to the ground as snow in the winter,” she said in a statement. “When ice is not present, we can end up with big snow storms like those that hit Buffalo, New York in December.”

Ice currently covers 0.1 percent of Lake Erie and none of Lake St. Clair, near Detroit. According to NOAA maps, current ice is concentrated in western Lake Michigan near Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the northern fringes of Lakes Superior and Huron.

The record high ice coverage for Feb. 16 came in 1979, when about 90 percent of the lakes were covered.

The year has so far been warmer than normal for the Midwest and Ontario — with average temperatures in January and February running between 6 and 10 degrees above average. This week in particular has been especially warm, as Cleveland hit 70 degrees and Detroit 62 degrees on Wednesday.

Temperatures are expected to drop closer to seasonable levels in the coming weeks, according to weather forecasts.

Tags Climate change NOAA weather

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