It is nearly May, and many parts of the United States are still shivering. The stubborn will of this year’s winter weather leaves the Midwest bracing itself for the chilling effects of the still-frozen Great Lakes, which have ice cover the region has never seen this late in recorded history. As of April 26, 2014, the Great Lakes system reported 35 percent ice cover, which is twice as much as the next highest record in history.
The largest of the five lakes, Lake Superior, is still over 60 percent frozen. As of April 26, 2014 68 percent of its 32,000 square miles were covered in ice; the previous record on that date 38 percent ice cover back in 1979.
It appears that the persistent polar vortices that have twisted their way through the northeast and Great Lakes regions are producing more than just a nuisance to people that eagerly await spring weather. There are some challenges arising from the delayed winter thaw effecting industry and the environment.
With some areas of the Great Lakes having ice layers over two feet deep, it is hard to predict when they will fully melt, and what sort of environmental effects will be seen when they do. Some predictions are showing that Lake Superior may still have ice in June, and the Great Lakes area could have to brace itself for higher-than-normal water levels.
The staggering levels of ice have the Midwest bracing itself for a slow season in shipping industry. The still-frozen Great Lakes have caused industry to slow to a snail’s pace. More than 200 million tons of cargo typically travels down through the Midwest by way of the Great Lakes. In March, only three shipments of coal were able to make it where they needed to be through the frozen lakes, a frightening 69 percent less than last year. The US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, was forced to scale back production in early April because the amounts of iron ore reaching their destination was so low.
The deep freeze is also making its impact on many of the Lakes’ fish species. With the water still remaining frigid, the experts predict that common fish species will migrate and spawn far later this year. Research scientist Solomon David explained to Michigan Radio that later egg laying could have a long impact, leading to younger and weaker fish next year. Ducks that typically dive below the surface of the lake to feed themselves with fish are unable to do so, also leading to higher death rates than ever.
The effects of the unseasonable cold could have effects for months, and maybe even years. However, it is not all gloom and doom. The Detroit District of the US Army Corps of Engineers records the levels of the Great Lakes highs and lows. Data show that over the last few years, the summer highs and winter lows have both fallen well below the long-term average. Climate change has led to more rapid rates of evaporation in the summer months, but this year’s colder temperatures may mean something different.
According to Keith Kompoltowicz, the chief of watershed hydrology for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, the higher water levels that will occur as a result of the melting ice will actually help industry and the ecosystem.
For starters, higher lake levels will allow shippers to load more cargo on each boat, and will be able to carry more cargo at less cost.
Higher lake levels will also promote biodiversity in the Great Lakes’ plant and animal species along coastal wetlands.
Despite a seemingly endless, unforgiving winter, a recent study showed that Michigan is one of the fastest warming states in the contiguous U.S. Climate Central looked at the average annual temperature for various locations in the U.S. since the start of Earth Day back in 1970, and found that Michigan’s rate of warming is two and a half times the rate of its calculated global warming.
Global warming aside, this year’s ice cover on the Great Lakes will have some enjoyable effects for cool weather lovers. The Midwest can also brace itself for a predicted cool summer on its way in the wake of the frozen Great Lakes.
By Erica Salcuni