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Lake Erie Slow To Freeze Over, Bringing Potential Erosion

Average ice coverage for Lake Erie is usually around 85 percent, as shown in a file photo from the winter of 2017-18. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
Lake Erie, partially covered by a layer of ice.

Mild temperatures so far this winter could have a lasting impact on Lake Erie’s shoreline. Late ice formation on the lake can cause even more erosion, according to scientists.

Despite a cold November, temperatures this winter have remained mostly mild. Lake Erie’s water temperatures are hovering in the mid-thirties — not cold enough to freeze.

In an average winter, Lake Erie would be about 40 percent frozen over by now, said meteorologist Robert LaPlante with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Without that ice coverage, he said, the likelihood for large waves increases.

“The lakeshore is vulnerable to more erosion, large wave effects and so on,” LaPlante said. “With the ice cover, the wind effects are dampened or removed.”

Surface ice also protects lakes from evaporation, he said, but that’s not a concern this year. Water levels at Lake Erie are about 20 inches above normal after a rainy 2019, LaPlante said.

A recent report from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) predicts as much as 80 percent ice coverage this winter.

GLERL Senior Ice Climatologist Jia Wang says that prediction uses factors like El Niño and climate variabilities across oceans, which have previously been shown to influence Great Lakes ice coverage year to year. The predictions also rely on data gathered from the past forty years.

“It looks like [the ice] is late, but there’s still plenty of time to get to 80 percent,” Wang said.

The average coverage for the lake is around 85 percent, Wang said. The predictions released by GLERL can have a margin of error as wide as 10 to 30 percent, he said. That’s because the climate variabilities and past data won’t always correctly predict future weather or climate trends.

“It looks like the projection is higher than the existing value, but we’ll see,” Wang said.

The next few weeks are pivotal in building up ice coverage due to the angle of the sun, NOAA’s LaPlante said.

“By about the mid-to-late part of February, the opportunity for ice formation rapidly wanes,” LaPlante said. “And by March, we’re essentially finished with new ice growth.”

Lake Erie is shallow compared to the other Great Lakes, LaPlante said, and some areas are prone to freezing faster — but there are still deeper basins that may not freeze at all.

“It’s not like a pond in a neighborhood, where it would just kind of freeze over and the behavior of ice would be consistent across the surface,” he said.

About 15 percent of winters on record see mild ice coverage, LaPlante said. The remaining 85 percent tend toward almost full coverage. Right now, LaPlante says, it looks like a mild coverage season.

But if temperatures drop, he said, it doesn’t take long for ice to build.

“Even though it’s been mild, if it does turn cold and stay cold, ice can build up quickly between now and Feb. 15,” LaPlante said.