From Lake Michigan to Lake Erie, ice far into the horizon has taken over the typical view of rolling whitecaps.
Jia Wang, a climatologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said the Great Lakes currently have about 79 percent ice coverage. That number could rise, depending on how long the cold continues.
“The ice will continue to grow,” Wang said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to reach 90 percent coverage next week because of the continued cooler weather.”
According to the National Weather Service forecast, temperatures in the next week are expected to remain cool for much of the region.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Area Engineer Tom O’Bryan said the rising and falling water levels in the lakes are influenced by evaporation, rain and snowfall.
“As Lake Michigan continues to freeze over, there’s less evaporation and less water (leaving),” he said. “As Lake Michigan does freeze, we get a little less lake-effect snow.”
This winter's cold weather has formed ice on areas of the lakes that will reduce evaporation by blocking water vapor escaping into the atmosphere. This could keep water temperatures cool into summer.
Water level hope
All of this ice cover is something that’s making those with an eye on lake levels giddy.
“I think that it is going to make a good impact for lake levels,” O’Bryan said. “We’re looking at about a foot above this time last year.”
This ice coverage is already making a difference, according to data from the Corps of Engineers. That data shows lakes Superior and Michigan-Huron are 12 and 15 inches, respectively, above their levels of a year ago. Lakes St. Clair, Erie and Ontario are 8, 5 and 10 inches, respectively, above what they were at this time last year.
“For water levels, I think we’ve had a fantastic year,” O’Bryan said.
For the record, Lake Michigan was recorded at 577.26 feet. The long-term average of the lake is 578.35 feet.
This is a far cry from past years when coverage was minimal and the lakes flirted with record low levels.
“We had a pretty low precipitation winter last year,” O’Bryan said. “As we know, looking out of our window, that’s not the case this year.”
The Great Lakes tend to change with the seasons. During the spring, they rise; in the fall, they tend to drop.
O’Bryan noted that with the heavy snowpack all around the region, this should also help with lake levels once the spring thaw occurs.
Hope for residents
These changes can be felt all over, including by local residents, who are excited about the prospect of increasing water levels.
“More water means irrigation intakes and docks for boats need not to be extended farther out in a body of water, and recreational beaches will be more accessible and desirable,” Grand Haven Township resident Kenneth Larson said.
Larson lives on one of the bayous off the Grand River and has been concerned about lower water levels.
In addition to benefits for residents, Larson pointed out that increased water levels also benefits the natural world.
“Higher water levels will decrease algal growth, the concentration of pollutants due to the increased wetlands, and makes it less ideal water habitats for invasive species and more suited for some of our native wildlife that live in and round our bayous, streams and rivers,” he said.
Added Larson: “It’s a good sign, though the water level fluctuations we experience are dictated by many factors, including man, and are natural phenomena that have gone on since the Great Lakes formation.”