Ice is Nice: Tracking Ice Cover on the Great Lakes

shoreline-ice-on-lake-michigan

Shoreline Ice, photo by Mark Swanson

Ice on Michigan’s Great Lakes has become something of a phenomenon in the last few years, attracting photographers and thousands more to see the ephemeral beauty created by wind, water, and freezing temperatures. But ice has other important purposes, as NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory page on Great Lakes Ice Cover explains:

Ice formation on the Great Lakes is a clear signal of winter. Looking back in time, the lakes were formed over several thousands of years as mile-thick layers of glacial ice advanced and retreated, scouring and sculpting the basin. The shape and drainage patterns of the basin were in a constant state of flux resulting from the ebb and flow of glacial meltwater coupled with the rebound of the underlying land as the massive ice sheets retreated.

Heavy ice cover can reduce the amount of evaporation from the Great Lakes in the winter, thus contributing to higher water levels.

In bays and other nearshore areas, ice forms a stable platform for winter recreational activity such as ice fishing. This stable ice also protects wetlands and the shoreline from erosion.

  • 94.7% ice coverage in 1979 is the maximum on record (data began in 1973)
  • 9.5% ice coverage in 2002 is the lowest on record
  • 11.5% ice coverage in 1998, a strong El Niño year
  • The extreme ice cover in 2014 (92.5%) and 2015 (88.8%) were the first consecutive high ice cover years since the late 1970s.

NOAA pegs the current ice cover at 9.9% and you can also watch an animation of the last 60 days of ice formation. You can check out satellite images of the Great Lakes for current ice cover and also this cool animation of Great Lakes ice cover from 1973 – 2016.

Mark took this photo a little over a week ago at Lincoln Township Park near Stevensville. With the warmer weather, there’s probably less. View his photo bigger and see more in his Michigan Winter slideshow.

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