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Last Updated:  13 December 2023
A warm start to the winter season has left the Great Lakes virtually ice-free and with their lowest ice cover to kick off a new year in at least 50 years.

On New Year’s Day, only 0.35% of the Great Lakes were covered in ice, the lowest on record for the date, and well below the historical average of nearly 10% for this point in winter, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL).

This year’s missing ice in the Great Lakes adds to a growing trend of winter ailments plaguing the US, from dwindling snowpacks in the West to an ongoing snow drought in the Northeast, all becoming more common due to warming temperatures from the climate crisis.

Since record-keeping began in 1973, researchers have found the Great Lakes have been experiencing a massive decline in ice, with the peak coverage dropping by about 5% each decade.

“It’s certainly very low for this time of year,” James Kessler, a physical scientist at NOAA’s GLERL, told CNN.

A person paddles a canoe down a street flooded by recent rain storms in Montpelier, Vermont, U.S., July 11, 2023.
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Air temperature matters when it comes to ice cover on the Great Lakes, said Kessler. Cold air is needed to cool the water so the lakes can freeze. But with the climate rapidly heating up, records show warmer than average temperatures in the region are melting the chances for Great Lakes ice to form.

“We’ve had consistently above average air temperature in the region, and we haven’t had consistently cold days,” Kessler said. “That’s really what you need. You need a consistent number of days below freezing.”

Average December temperatures in the Upper Midwest states surrounding the Great Lakes soared 8 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for the month. It was the warmest December on record for several cities along the Great Lakes, including Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota.

It was a similar story on the eastern side of the lakes as well, with Cleveland; Erie, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York, all seeing one of the warmest Decembers on record. As a result, Lake Erie is currently completely ice-free.

It’s an ongoing trend. Lake Erie has seen a decline in ice coverage of about 5% each decade, according to Kessler, while Lake Superior is seeing the most rapid rate of ice cover loss of about 7% every 10 years. Recent studies have shown that Lake Superior is among the fastest warming lakes in the world, thanks to planet-heating pollution.

It is still early in the season, Kessler cautioned. One prolonged blast of Arctic air in the coming weeks could cause ice coverage to increase exponentially. And peak ice in the Great Lakes typically occurs in late February or early March.

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/408d30f6-f8fd-48bf-9007-a303e8d569de