Climate: Great Lakes ice cover shrinking quickly

Researchers document a 71 percent decline since the 1970s

This NASA image from March 9, 2003, shows ice almost completely covering several lakes, including the largest lake—Lake Superior—at upper left. Just left of image center, Lake Michigan shows a ring of ice around its shores and at its northern end, while to the east, Lake Huron is almost completely covered. South of Huron, Lake Erie is veiled by thin clouds, but through the clouds, ice is visible covering all but the northern parts of the lake. To the northeast, Lake Ontario appears relatively ice-free beneath the clouds.Ice cover on Lake Erie is not uncommon, since it is the shallowest of all the lakes, but the big lakes—Superior and Huron—rarely freeze completely over; the big freeze has interrupted shipping and ferry lanes in the region. Ice experts from the Canadian Ice Service were quoted in media reports as saying it may be April before the ice thaws completely.


Ice cover trends on the Great Lakes.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — University of Michigan and NOAA researchers who scoured historic Coast Guard records, satellite data and other sources have concluded that there has been a significant downward trend in ice coverage from 1973 to the present for all of the lakes.

Overall, the total loss for Great Lakes ice coverage is 71 percent during that period. with Lake Ontario showing the largest ice loss, while Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair showed the smallest amount of ice loss, at 37 percent.

The documented loss during the period is likely due to a combination of factors, including a response to cyclical hemispheric climate patterns, like El Niño-La Niña phases, changes in the Arctic Oscillation and overall global warming. Lake ice may respond differently to climate forcing in the upper and lower Great Lakes, the researchers concluded.

The year-to-year changes driven by those cyclical patterns is overshadowed by the long-term trend of significant ice loss since the 1970s, although the researchers caution that the trends from that time period shouldn’t be extrapolated back or forward.

The study also looked air and water temperatures to identify factors that could be responsible for the declining winter ice cover, finding a consistent increase in surface air temperatures over the lakes between 1973 and 2010 and an even more marked increase in summer surface water temperatures — which climbed about 2.5 degrees Celsius between 1976 and 2006, according to a separate study.

The “excessive” warming of lake water temperature relative to the local surface air temperature is caused by a positive ice/water albedo feedback due to the declining winter ice cover, similar to trends documented in the Arctic.

Lighter-colored ice reflects incoming solar radiation back into the atmosphere, but darker-colored open water absorbs more of that energy as heat. The more the water warms in the summer, the longer it takes to cool and freeze in the winter.


3 thoughts on “Climate: Great Lakes ice cover shrinking quickly

  1. Record keeping, research, satellites, advances in science. If anything, we certainly are gaining volumes of information about our environment here on Earth, despite what the skeptics preach. After all, considering that those doing the research and those skeptics are in effect getting paid to find or debunk, well, draw your own conclusion[s] as to who may be right!

  2. “Shrinking quickly…rarely freeze completerly over” but are and shipping delayed til June because of it…? I’m confused at the conflicting messages.

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