The Great Lakes area has experienced below average temperatures this winter. Freezing temperatures and record-setting snowfall in Michigan have led to higher ice cover on the lakes. Aside from the inconvenience of the extreme cold and snow, the ice is making it more difficult for ships to pass through the region.
According to NOAA’s Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System, the Great Lakes measured in at 78.5 percent ice cover as of Feb. 7. This is up from the 66 percent it measured at just last week. Due to the freezing temperatures in the area for most of the winter, each of the lakes has high levels of ice. Lake Superior has hit a record with 92 percent ice cover. It broke the 1994 record of 91 percent.
Though the rest of the lakes have not set records yet, they are also high compared to that of average years on record. It is a different scene from recent years when the ice only reached 40 percent, with an average closer to 51 percent. Lake Superior has 93 percent coverage, Lake Huron has 88 percent, Lake Erie has 95 percent, Lake Michigan has 53 percent and due to its larger size, Lake Ontario has the least amount with 29 percent.
School closings, poor road conditions and wondering where to pile the next layer of snowfall are not the only issues due to the cold and snowy winter though. The Coast Guard has spent more time breaking ice to keep shipping lanes clear than they have in recent years. Their goal is to maintain a lane of traffic for ships to pass, which companies still depend on for transporting goods. They have measured as much as five feet of ice on parts of Lake Michigan, according to Lt. Michael Patterson of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The shipping season, which kicks off on Mar. 25. when the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie opens, may be off to a slow start. A side benefit of the ice coverage, however, has been an increase in visitors to Lake Superior’s south shore. The ice coverage has made it possible to trek out to the Caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This was not possible over the last five years when ice coverage was down.
Ice cover over the Great Lakes has been monitored closely and each week, the amount is steadily rising, despite the fact that the normal peak for ice on the lakes is not until mid-March. With over a month to go, the percentages are expected to rise and they are likely to break more records. The highest ice cover on record are 1979, which hit 94.7 percent and 1994, which hit 90.7 percent. Unless there is a warm-up or rain in the near future, 2014 will be in the record books, as well.
The past week was filled with colder than average temperatures and with wind chill factors, it felt like it was below zero on some mornings. The forecast for the coming week shows more of the same, with a slight warm-up expected on the weekend. The freezing temperatures will continue to affect the ice cover on the Great Lakes though. The lakes may completely freeze over before winter ends due to the arctic air.
By Tracy Rose
The Weather Channel
ABC News 5