Great Lakes free of ice at last

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Going, going, gone...

People usually don‘‍t make such a big deal about melting ice.

But this past winter was either an unusually cold and snowy one for the Great Lakes region or a throwback to winters past, depending on your point of view in this era of climate change.

Whichever, here’‍s an announcement for the record books: June 6 was the official date that the Great Lakes region bid adieu to the winter‘‍s last remaining ice cover.

That‘‍s the word from one of the true deans of Great Lakes ice cover, George Leshkevich, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric‘‍s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Mr. Leshkevich has been tracking Great Lakes ice for decades.

The last chunks of this season’s ice dislodged from the shoreline and floated into the open water of Lake Superior and melted last Friday, even though Lake Superior‘‍s water temperature remained less than 40 degrees. On Thursday it was 39.4 degrees. .

In 40 years of record-keeping, there‘‍s no evidence of Great Lakes ice cover lasting until June.

In 1979, the ice lasted into late May. In 1996 and 2003, it lasted until May 29.

Some people claim it lasted until June 1 one year, but there’‍s no evidence to support that, Mr. Leshkevich said.

“This year set a record in our 40 years of records. We haven‘‍t seen it last as far as June 6 before,” he said.

There was a lot of ice to melt.

On March 6, 92.19 percent of the Great Lakes was covered by ice.

During that 40-year time-frame of record-keeping, that’‍s second only to Feb. 19, 1979, when 94.76 percent of the lake surfaces were frozen over, according to NOAA records.

Depending on how hot this summer gets, there could be lingering effects from that melted ice. 

Lake Superior‘‍s always cold, being so deep and northerly. But Thursday’‍s water temperatures for three other lakes remained in the low 50s, from Lake Michigan‘‍s 52.06 degrees to Lake Huron’‍s 53.87 degrees to Lake Ontario‘‍s 54.40 degrees

Only Lake Erie - the warmest lake, in large part because it is the shallowest and most southerly - was well in the 60s, with an average water temperature of 64.86 degrees.

The lake’‍s western basin in the Monroe-Toledo-Sandusky, Ohio, area is almost always the warmest, because it is much more shallow than the central and eastern basins near Cleveland and Erie, Pa., respectively.

 

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground -- an online Weather Channel product -- said cooler air near the surface helps keep the atmosphere stable and, thus, reduces the odds for violent weather.

The longer water temperatures stay cool, the less the lakes will evaporate this fall during the time of year when evaporation becomes greatest, Mr. Leshkevich said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already predicting better lake levels for this summer because of this past winter’‍s heavy snow. Keeping evaporation in check this fall and winter could keep lake levels strong for 2015.

The Great Lakes region had been mired in an era of low-water levels until recently, which had affected boating, fishing, and the costs of shipping cargo.

While it‘‍s hard for officials to predict too far into the future, Mr. Masters cautioned against thinking that this past winter -- and its massive ice cover -- will be repeated.

He said there are numerous signs of global climate change, not the least of which was the unusually warm winter for California and the Pacific Northwest. Other experts have pointed to unusual warmth in Europe, Australia, and South America and how 2013, globally, was one of the warmest years on record.

“Yes, absolutely, it’‍s an anomaly,” Mr. Masters said of the past winter‘‍s Great Lakes ice cover and the region’‍s wicked weather.

He said there is evidence that climate change is causing regional extremes because of how the jet stream is being held in place.

Meteorologists also are predicting an El Nino weather pattern will make next winter more mild for the Great Lakes region, Mr. Masters said.


The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tom Henry is a reporter for The Blade.

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