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Harsh Winter Causes Greatest Great Lakes Ice Coverage Since 1979

By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
March 08, 2014; 12:07 AM

NASA satellites captured this image of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario on Feb. 19, 2014.

With an end in sight, the winter of 2014 rages on, ushering in frigid arctic air and dumping record-breaking snow and ice on much of the nation. This season, ice coverage on the Great Lakes has exceeded all other measurements since 1979.

"By a long shot, this is the most ice we've had on Lake Superior in 20 years," Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, Minn., Jay Austin said.

During a typical winter, 30 to 40 percent of the Great Lakes are covered by ice, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson.

Usually arctic air swept over the Great Lakes creates lake-effect snow but modifies the air, making it warmer. This typically makes regions from Ohio through the Northeast a little warmer than it otherwise would be.

However, this winter 80 to 90 percent of the Great Lakes are covered in ice. As of Thursday, March 6, 2014, the total Great Lakes basin was 92.19 percent covered, ranking the Great Lakes ice coverage this winter second in the overall rankings, according to Physical Scientist with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

"The arctic air masses don't get warmed up as much because of all the snow and ice," Anderson said. "There has not been much of a thaw so the ice keeps building up."

The last time in recent history the ice coverage was even close to this winter's percentage was the winter of 1993-1994. That winter ice coverage was measured at 90.7 percent.

Unlike a pond, the depth of the Great Lakes prevent it from being a completely frozen sheet of ice, but instead the ice atop the lakes can actually move with the wind, according to Austin. Due to the ability of the ice to move around, the thickness of the ice across the lakes vary and therefore researchers do not know how thick the ice is in all portions of the lake.

So, this makes it hard for scientists to define what freezing over entirely really means.

Depending on who you ask, Lake Superior already has frozen over, Austin stated. However, with two to three weeks to go until the typical peak of ice coverage in mid-March, the lakes will only freeze even more.

"The ice will become more robust, we are going to have more ice rather than less over the next three weeks," Austin said.

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Other than the ice jam worries, the ice coverage on the Great Lakes, specifically on Lake Superior, is mounting concerns for the region's climate.

"With all of this ice, all the sunlight that hits the surface of the lake is going to get bounced back out into space, so it's going to take longer to get warmer this spring and summer," Austin said. "The lake is going to just start warming this year when it will start cooling off for next year."

In this Feb. 6, 2014, aerial photo is the ice-covered St. Clair River with the Canadian shoreline on the left. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

This could bring a relatively cool year for the communities surrounding the lake.

However, the silver lining of the massive ice coverage is that perhaps it can prevent lake water levels from lowering like they did just last year.

"With the ice cover, less water gets evaporated so lake levels stay high and help preserve some of the water," Anderson said.

Regardless of the impending impacts of the ice on the region, one thing is for sure, the ice isn't going anywhere any time soon.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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