Great Lakes ice cover remains low this winter

Feb 14, 2017

Last week, 15 percent of the Great Lakes was covered in ice. That’s the highest level of ice cover recorded so far this winter and far less than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 64 percent prediction.  A lack of ice could have lasting implications for this year and beyond.

Great Lakes ice coverage from 1973 to 2016.
Credit NOAA

2017 is shaping up to be one of the lowest years for ice coverage on the Great Lakes in 44 years.  That’s when NOAA started tracking ice cover in the region. 

NOAA scientist George Leshkevich says a mild winter can be a factor in the algae blooms that threaten the waters of Western Lake Erie.  "Depending on the summer – if it’s a normal summer or if it’s cool and cloudy, surface temperatures can reach a point where those blooms can start perhaps earlier in the season," explained Leshkevich.

But there are other factors involved as well, including rainfall and phosphorus levels.

Ice also protects wetlands and the Great Lakes shoreline from erosion.  Leshkevich says the problem extends beyond the environment as well.  "Recreational activities, fish recruitment and even some of the fruit belts could be affected," said Leshkevich.

The James R Barker on the St. Clair River in 2015.
Credit John E Heintz Jr / Shutterstock, Inc.

A lake free of ice also means more lake-effect snow.