Earth Day: How low ice coverage is changing the future of Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes

'We've had the lowest ice cover year in about 50 years on the Great Lakes'

ByCheryl Scott and Blanca Rios WLS logo
Tuesday, April 23, 2024
Low ice coverage is changing future of Lake Michigan
Earth Day 2024: How rising temperatures from climate change causing low ice coverage is changing the future of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- This past winter was one of the warmest on record. It led to record-low ice coverage on all five Great Lakes, a sign that the world's largest freshwater system is not immune to climate change.

"We're seeing the Great Lakes kind of as sentinels of climate change. They're showing us what's happening in this sort of global change that we're experiencing," said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes advocates for policies needed to protect the Great Lakes for the future.

"We've had the lowest ice cover year in about 50 years on the Great Lakes," said Brammier. "And we know that the climate is changing around us. We see evidence of that in warming water, less ice, highly variable water levels"

FROM WINTERS PAST Winter Storm Delilah creates perfect conditions for Lake Michigan ice balls to form

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started keeping track of the Great Lakes' ice cover in 1973. The Great Lakes typically see an average of 53 percent ice coverage in the winter. This year, it peaked in mid-January at just 16 percent, the fourth lowest on record.

Even more staggering, from January to March, total ice cover across all 5 Great Lakes measured a mere 4.4%, an all-time historic low.

"We started late, we never really got the cold air in place to let the ice catch up to where it needed to be. And so we trailed behind all season," said Bryan Mroczka ,a physical scientist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

SO GREAT, SO FRAGILE: How climate change impacts the Great Lakes

"If the lake just goes up a few degrees, it can totally change the kind of habitat that's available for that, for those fish and other wildlife, they might go somewhere else looking for a better place to live and we might see, for example, more invasive species coming into the Great Lakes," said Brammeier.

The ice not only helps shelter marine wildlife, it also helps shield the beautiful beaches we all enjoy.

The city's prized shoreline is susceptible to extreme erosion, especially during the winter when there are strong storms and high waves.

"When you have frozen water at the shoreline that actually blocks some of those big winter storm waves from hitting the shoreline and can reduce erosion, it can reduce the loss of land and property," said Brammeier.

Less ice cover could also mean more impactful lake effect snow events. When the Lakes freeze over, the fuel that drives these storms shuts off. Years that feature less ice have the greatest potential for snowier seasons. Year to year variability of ice cover will continue but less ice may be the new normal.

"We will see significant ice on the lakes again. That's a guarantee, we will have colder winters, but the probability of any given year is increasing, that it will be a low ice year," said Mroczka.

Climate change is already painting a different picture of the future of our fresh water source. Still, there are ways to preserve and protect the lakes.

"You'll just see a lake that looks different, perhaps from the one that that I grew up with or my parents and grandparents grew up around," said Brammeier. "And so that's just going to be the reality that we face as well, is that we're going to see a lake that is that is in its own way adapting to climate change and the unfortunate impacts of global warming. When you see that ice, you know, don't just think of it as cubes in your freezer. Think of it as part of that living Great Lakes that we're all part of and that we are privileged to live here and so protecting all those parts of the living Great Lakes is really important."