Low Ice on the Great Lakes this Winter

By noaa.gov.

Ice coverage has reached a record low in the Great Lakes for this time of year.

As of February 13, 2023, only 7 percent of these five freshwater lakes were covered in ice, which is significantly below the 35-40 percent ice cover that is expected for this time of year, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL).

Ice extent across the basin briefly jumped up to 21 percent in early February in response to a cold snap, but has been declining since. Maximum ice cover typically occurs between mid-February and early March.

Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data {{{year}}}, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/igo/deed.en>, Northeastern_Europe_ESA381348 via Wikimedia Commons
Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data by wikimedia commons

NOAA has been keeping records on the Great Lakes ice extent since 1973.

Air temperatures are the main factor affecting ice cover on the Great Lakes, and a warmer than average January contributed to the lack of ice. According to the U.S. National Ice Center, each of the five lakes experienced warmer than average air temperatures in January. In addition, it was an especially warm January across the contiguous U.S.: The average temperature was 35.2 degrees F (5.1 degrees above average) according to NOAA, and January 2023 Earth’s seventh-warmest January on record.

Although there is year-to-year variability in the ice cover of the lakes, NOAA research has found that in recent years ice cover is in a downward trend. An analysis led by Jia Wang, an ice climatologist at NOAA’s GLERL, found significant declines in average ice cover of the Great Lakes between 1973 and 2017. During the winter period of those 44 years, which runs from December 1 to April 30, average ice cover on the Great Lakes declined about 70 percent.

Ice cover protects the shoreline of lakes – without it, high waves can scour the coastline and cause severe flooding.

Low ice coverage on the lakes can be a set up for large severe “lake effect” snow storms, says Ayumi Fujisaki-Manome, a researcher at NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan. “The moisture and heat from the lake surface water are absorbed into the atmosphere by storm systems, and then fall back to the ground as snow in the winter. When ice is not present, we can end up with big snow storms like those that hit Buffalo, New York in December.

Read more by noaa.gov