Extensive Great Lakes Ice Hurts Shipping, Helps Tourism

By Mark Leberfinger, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
March 27, 2014; 5:00 AM ET
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Unusually extensive ice cover on the Great Lakes has caused some delays in getting U.S./Canadian shipping lanes open for the spring, but the same cover has aided tourism in other areas of the five lakes.

The United States Coast Guard will be working with the Canadian Coast Guard with ice-breaking operations on Lake Superior, the Canadian Coast Guard said in a news release.

There has been an increased demand for ice-breaking assistance during the winter of 2013-14, the Canadian Coast Guard said. The conditions this winter haven't been seen in eastern Canada since 1994; that year, the St. Lawrence Seaway wasn't open for traffic until April 5.

Due to unusually heavy ice conditions, the opening date for the 2014 navigation season for the

Montreal/Lake Ontario Section has been pushed back to March 31, 2014, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. said.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alder works in Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, March 21, 2013. (Photo/NOAA)

Overall, the ice cover on the five lakes was up to 92 percent ice coverage in early March, the greatest ice cover there since 1979.

But at the same time, the increased ice cover could translate into slightly higher water levels on the lakes to not only aid shipping, but also help fishing, AccuWeather.com Canadian Weather Expert Brett Anderson said.

Low Great Lakes water levels can limit navigability of shipping channels and reduce hydropower capacity such as at Niagara Falls, which is the largest electricity producer in New York state. It can also impede tourism and recreational activities, and increase operational risks for industries that rely on the lakes as a source of processing and cooling water, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

"The greater ice coverage may slightly increase water levels by reducing the amount of evaporation. Also, the higher-than-normal snowpack across the region would likely increase runoff that eventually spills into the lakes," Anderson said.

While the Great Lakes ice may increase water levels, it also boosted tourism on the Great Lakes by making previously inaccessible areas open to the public.

The Apostle Islands ice caves at Bayfield, Wis., attracted huge crowds this past season due to the increased ice cover.

More than 138,000 people visited during the ice season, according to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It was 93 percent of last year's annual visitation for the whole park and 81 percent of the average annual visitation since 2000.

More than 138,000 visitors made the two-mile round trip walk on Lake Superior to visit to Apostle Islands ice caves, in Bayfield, Wis., during the winter of 2013-14, according to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. (Photo/Neil Howk, National Park Service)

The increased visitation brought with it an estimated $10 million to $12 million boast to the Bayfield area economy, Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau Executive Director David Eades said.

"This has been an amazing boon to the regional economy and although we would love this to continue for another month, the safety of the visitor always comes first," Eades stated. "Although the sea caves will not be accessible again until summer, the area still has plenty of snow for all the other winter

activities in the area."

Overall, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore brings a $24 million tourism benefit to communities

surrounding the park, according to a newly released National Park Service report. The visitor spending supported 330 jobs in the local area.

It's unclear how long ice cover will linger on the lakes, but it could affect the weather further into the spring.

"Later ice cover would tend to have a cooling influence in spring near the surface with stronger lake breezes through the spring," Anderson said. "It would also have a stabilizing effect on the atmosphere and possibly reduce the threat for strong thunderstorms."


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