Great Lakes Nearly Ice-Free: Thanks, El Nino

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El Nino, a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean, is known to have effects on weather across the planet, some of them in surprising places far from the ocean.

This year’s unusually powerful El Nino, for example, has changed weather patterns around the Great Lakes, and the result is a startling reduction in their ice cover compared to 2015 and 2016, according to data compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation scientists.

NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reports that as of Feb. 3, only 5.7 percent of the lakes’ surface is covered by ice, making them virtually ice-free. That’s a huge decline from 2015, when about 50 percent of the surface was frozen, and an even bigger drop from 2014, when nearly 72 percent was solid.

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Accuweather explains that in the previous two winters, early intrusions of Arctic air, combined with persistent below-normal temperatures, made for conditions in which the ice developed and expanded across a large portion of the lakes’ surface. This winter, however, the weather was much milder in November and December, with temperatures near or above normal across the region.

As a result, even after the weather got colder in January, it didn’t drop enough to cause a rapid accumulation of lake ice, according to Accuweather meteorologist Todd Miner.

NEWS: Great Lakes Mostly Frozen, Nearing Record Coverage (from 2014)

El Nino’s effect on the lakes has been documented ever since measurements of lake ice were first systematically gathered back in the early 1970s, according to MLive.com chief meteorologist Mark Torregrossa. The two strongest El Nino patterns in that period, 1982-83 and 1997-98, had only 18.1 percent and 11.5 percent peak ice cover respectively. But this winter looks to be even more sparse, ice-wise.

One particularly effect of the dearth of ice: We’re unlikely to be running any pictures this year of hardy local adventurers hiking and camping overnight on frozen Lake Erie.

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