A Great Lake Succumbs to the Deep Freeze

By Tom Yulsman | January 11, 2014 1:05 pm

Image of the Day:

Lake Erie Ice

Most of Lake Erie is now covered by ice, as seen in the satellite image taken on Jan. 9, 2014. (Source: NASA)

Many of my posts lately have either been about fire or ice (figuratively speaking in the case of the former). So I was hoping to change the subject.

But when I saw meteorologist Jeff Masters’ post yesterday about the U.S. deep freeze leaving the Great Lakes with their highest level of ice coverage in 20 years, I knew I had to stick with it, at least for now. The news prompted me to check out what the Great Lakes look like from space right now — and particularly Lake Erie, which is the iciest of all.

The image above shows the answer.

It was captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite last Thursday, Jan. 9. Most of the lake is frozen over, and even the greenish areas of open water have quite a lot of ice floating on them.

Deep Freeze Great Lakes Ice

A map of ice coverage of lakes Huron (upper left quandrant), Ontario (middle right) and Erie (bottom). Red tones are indicative of ice six inches or more in thickness covering 90 percent or more of that area. (Source: Canadian Ice Service)

To be more specific, thanks to the deep freeze, more than 90 percent of the lake is frozen over with ice six inches or more thick.

The Great Lakes experience significant year-by-year variability in ice cover, caused by natural variations in climate. But the overall long-term trend has been for less and less ice, according to research published in the Journal of Climate in 2010:

There is a significant downward trend in lake ice cover for all of the lakes for the period 1973–2010. The largest trend occurs in Lakes Ontario, Superior, and Michigan, while the smallest trend occurs in Lakes St. Clair and Erie . . . This translates into a total loss in all Great Lakes ice coverage of 71% over the entire 38-yr record.

The researchers point out that ice coverage of lakes is a “sensitive indicator of regional climate and climate change.”

Their study found that over periods less than 10 years, changes in ice cover seem to be related to natural climatic patterns: the Atlantic and North Atlantic Oscillation, and El Niño/La Niña cycles.

But over a longer period, human-caused climate change may be implicated. In fact, air temperatures at the surface over the Great Lakes did rise between 1973 and 2010. The increases ranged from about 0.4 C degrees per decade over the lower lakes to between 0.6 and 0.7 degrees per decade over the upper lakes.

The greatest warming has been seen over Lake Superior, which has also seen an upward trend in water temperature. Other research has found that summer surface water temperatures in Lake Superior rose about 2.5°C between 1979 and 2006, which is quite a bit more than the warming of the atmosphere in the region overall.

What might account for the difference? The Journal of Climate study notes that the excess warming of the lake is caused by declining ice cover. Here is how this works: When there is more ice, more sunlight is reflected from the surface back into space, enhancing cold temperatures. Conversely, when air temperatures warm lake ice melts, and this results in more of the sun’s energy being absorbed by the relatively dark surface of the lake. This, in turn, causes water temperatures to rise.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of this winter shapes up. Given my fascination with the sun, as well as with weather and climate, one thing is a good bet: I’m probably not finished fire and ice posts! (But I am hoping that we’re done with deep freeze events.)

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    We must spare no taxpayer dollar to harvest Great Lakes’ ice, then ship it north to save polar bears. Unsaved polar bears will be shipped south to hunt seals in the Great Lakes after excess seals in La Jolla Beach, CA are pried loose from their mounds of feces and shipped east. Everybody can stop off for a cool one in Texas en route, per diem.

    Remember, if it’s cooler its weather, if it’s warmer its Global Warming. If it’s wetter, find some gopherwood. If it’s drier, discharge Lake Meade to renovate Grand Canyon ecosystems. Look 100 years ahead, not at tonight’s dinner. No per diem for yoooou!

    • Dan

      Are you high?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        I am reality-based. Truth is only tolerated in humor and in war. We’ve ruined war.

    • 111Dave111

      From the Article: “The Great Lakes experience significant year-by-year variability in ice cover, caused by natural variations in climate. But the overall long-term trend has been for less and less ice.”

      We have enough invasive species in the Great Lakes!

      Keep your salty seals and we will keep our Fresh Ice.

      From Wikipedia: The Great Lakes are “the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, containing 21% of the world’s surface fresh water. The total surface is 94,250 square miles, and the total volume (measured at the low water datum) is 5,439 cubic miles.”

      “The lakes contain 84% of the surface freshwater of North America, if these waters were evenly distributed over the entire continent’s land area they would reach a depth of 5 feet.”

      “Many invasive species have been introduced due to trade in the area, and some threaten the region’s biodiversity.”

      “From the interior to the outlet at the Saint Lawrence River, water flows from Superior to Huron and Michigan, southward to Erie, and finally northward to Lake Ontario. The lakes drain a large watershed via many rivers, and are studded with approximately 35,000 islands. There are also tens of thousands smaller lakes, within the basin. The surface area of the five primary lakes combined is roughly equal to the size of the United Kingdom, while the surface area of the entire basin (the lakes and the land they drain) is about the size of the UK and France combined. Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that is located entirely within the United States; the others form a water boundary between the United States and Canada. The lakes are bound by the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Both Michigan and Ontario border four of the lakes.”

      “Michigan is the only state to consist of two peninsulas. The Upper Peninsula is separated from the Lower Peninsula by the Straits of Mackinac, a five-mile channel that joins Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. The two peninsulas are connected by the Mackinac Bridge. The state has the longest freshwater coastline of any political subdivision in the world, being bounded by four of the five Great Lakes, plus Lake St Clair. Michigan also has 64,980 inland lakes and ponds, and a person in the state is never more than six miles from a natural water source or more than 85 miles from a Great Lakes shoreline.”

      Michigan is 41.5% lake.

    • RCook

      Another denier…nothing humorous, even slightly, when it comes to the polar bear situation….
      Speaking of sparing no taxpayers dollar, why on earth is big oil getting subsidies still?…(other than having their heads jammed way to far up some part of the politicians’ anatomy)

      • Tariq_Toulhead_Al_Tabilcloth

        Stop drinking Kool-Aid.

    • SockPuppet

      Love it. Also, If it’s weather you like…then it’s just weather, if it’s weather you don’t like…then its Anthropogenic Global Warming.

  • Muawiyah

    Time to remember an important factoid. Superior, the lake with the most surface warming, has a volcano in the bottom!

    Naw, it’s not gonna’ blow up any time soon, but none of these ancient volcanos are actually dead ~ a mantle plume can feed magma to any of them and revive them in days.

    Has to do with the fact that when a volcano is fresh it melts a large part of the upper crust and changes its chemical nature while leaving behind yet another easily melted chemistry in the ‘plug’.

    No report on Superior’s temperature is complete without an update on the volcano and its rifts at the bottom!

    • Michael Hobart

      The Mid-Continent Rift is about 1.1 Billion years old, which I hope you knew :-)

      • Muawiyah

        Yup ~ Mississippi River is on top of a crack 17 miles deep!

  • Muawiyah

    Great shots of Lake Michigan ice forcing its way ashore to attack the city of Chicago ~ ON TV TODAY

    Last time I saw that was 1973.

    Guess that trendline just got nipped eh!

  • Jim Foles

    Do El Niño/La Niña cycles match sunspot cycles?

  • Asok Asus

    “The researchers point out that ice coverage of lakes is a “sensitive indicator of regional climate and climate change.” ”

    Except when it’s not. Like when there’s record breaking ice. No matter WHAT the situation, no matter what the evidence, global warming is cause for all. If it’s record-breaking cold? Global warming caused it. If hurricanes disappear for a year? Global warming caused it. If hurricanes are more numerous for a year? Global warming caused it. Ships trapped in the antarctic? Global warming caused it. Record growth in arctic ice? Global warming caused it. Drought? Global warming caused it. Floods? Global warming caused it. I could go on, but think pretty much everyone has wised up to the global warming scam by now.

    • RCook

      Its funny how you took the quoted term “climate change”, and referred to it as global warming…
      You are obviously not part of the 99+% of academia around the world who concur on climate change…
      Real scientists display facts anyhow, not sarcasm.

      • Asok Asus

        “Its funny how you took the quoted term “climate change”, and referred to it as global warming…”

        Global warming is what the warmists fools called global warming for decades until it didn’t warm and NONE of their predictions came true, and THEY then changed “global warming” to “climate change” to cover their prediction failures. “Climate Change” means absolutely nothing as the climate has always been continuously changing for hundreds of millions of years, with or without mankind, and it will go on changing, with or without mankind.

      • Larry

        actually your 99+% is wrong, there is a high % of scientists to disagree. In fact it has been proven without a doubt that sun spot activity has more to do with warming and cooling of the earth that everything man can possibly do. By the way it was the global warming people who changed the venue to climate change since it is fairly obvious global warming is that pervasive. While it is warming in areas other areas are experiencing record cold and the oceans has shown a constant lowering of tempature

  • Scienceteachersrock

    Learn just a little and your views might change, lazy people who don’t learn, are sucked into incorrect knowledge….. We are affecting our climate. Take responsibility.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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