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The coldest winter in three years has caused ice to build up over much of the Great Lakes, impacting shipping and fishing businesses across the region.
Early intrusions of arctic air this winter combined with the long duration of cold spells allowed ice to build up and expand across the Great Lakes. The lakes are covered by nearly five times more ice than a year ago.
On Feb. 12, the Great Lakes were nearly 70 percent covered by ice, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL). This is significantly higher than the ice coverage on the lakes in February 2016 and February 2017, when ice coverage was at 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Additionally, Lake Erie is nearly completely frozen over with ice accounting for 92 percent of the lake’s surface.
There is the potential that even more ice could develop on the lakes before reaching peak coverage for the season.
“Maximum ice cover on the lower lakes (like Lake Erie) normally occurs between mid-February and end of February. Maximum ice cover on the upper lakes (like Lake Superior) normally occurs between end of February and early March,” GLERL said.
Widespread ice on the Great lakes can have positive impacts on some businesses across the region while having a negative impact on others.
"The ice can hurt commerce and has affected the length of the shipping season on the Great Lakes," Meteorologist Todd Miner said.
"When Lake Erie is full of ice, they're not going to be sending any ships through there,” Miner said.
Icebreakers can be used to open up shipping lanes in the ice, but widespread ice formation and harsh weather conditions can be a challenge for the limited number of icebreakers in operation in Great Lakes waters.
Frigid air can require icebreakers to carve out paths in the ice more frequently to keep the shipping lanes open, while gusty winds can easily move the ice and close off the lanes.
While a plethora of ice can slow or stop shipping, it can be a boon for ice fishing. This year in particular has been an excellent year for ice fishermen on Lake Erie due to the lake being almost completely frozen over.
“This has been a near unprecedented year as far as ice fishing pressure around the Cleveland area and folks are catching all kinds of fish,” Mike Durkalec, fisheries biologist at Cleveland Metroparks, said.
Fishing pressure refers to the number of people heading out to go fishing. When pressure is high, that means more people are heading out to fish.
“The good ice around Cleveland has just meant that a lot more people are out than in past years. Probably the most I’ve ever seen specifically in the Cleveland area harbors,” Durkalec added.
Not only have the favorable ice fishing conditions been good for tourism, but also for outdoor sporting goods stores that sell fishing equipment.
Stores such as Bass Pro Shop saw a spike in ice fishing equipment sales earlier this winter when an arctic outbreak caused ice to form rapidly on the lake.
The improved ice conditions have been welcomed by local economies that were impacted over the past two winters when low ice levels forced ice fishing events across the region to be canceled, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Long-term weather impacts
The ice and frigid winter waters of the Great Lakes can have a long-lasting impact on the weather across the entire region.
AccuWeather meteorologists are projecting a lingering chill across the Great Lakes into the spring, but the cold, icy waters of the lakes can influence the air and cause a cooling effect downwind, especially near the shores of the lakes.
In extreme cases, areas along the lakeshore can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than areas farther inland away from the cold waters of the Great Lakes.
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The cooler air around the Great Lakes can also impact the frequency of severe thunderstorms near the lakes throughout the spring.
"The presence of chilly water could reduce the threat of severe weather by keeping the atmosphere more stable," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.
Depending on how long the winter ice lingers and how long it takes for the waters to begin to warm during the spring, some early summer vacationers could encounter cool water when boating, swimming or fishing.
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