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Great Lakes ice cover at 50-year low


A look along most Ontario shorelines shows the minuscule amount of ice that’s on the Great Lakes this winter.

“But it’s not unprecedented. We’ve had three years in the past decade where we’ve had next to no ice, at least in the lower lakes,” says Dr. Mike McKay, Executive Director of the University of Windsor’s, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.

On this date last year, 40% of the Great Lakes were covered in ice, but today, ice cover is less than 6%, marking the lowest ice cover on this date, since the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration starting tracking Great Lakes ice cover, in 1973.Great Lakes ice cover (Source: NOAA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

“Climate change. It’s consistent with climate change. It parallels what we’re seeing in the Arctic with ice loss from the Poles. We’ve seen a 75% decline in ice cover in the Great Lakes over the past 50 years,” says McKay.

Less ice means unimpeded shipping seasons, and less need for ice breakers, but it has plenty of potential negative consequences, too.

“Increased coastal erosion. More potential for lake affect snow, and there’s all sorts of ecological considerations,” says the University of Windsor professor.

The mild winters that lead to an uncovered lake means water temperatures are 1.5 to 2 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which can mean an earlier start to beach season, but warm waters are not they’re cracked up to be, says McKay.

“That can set the stage for longer period where blue-green algae will bloom in places like Western Lake Erie. So, there’s lots of concern right now, with warmer lakes,” he says.

McKay says there will continue to be some years with more ice on the Great Lakes, but the trend in the past two decades, is for more years like this, where it’s not February frozen, it’s February flowing, on our Great Lakes.

You can see current and past Great Lakes ice conditions by visiting Top Stories

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