Great Lakes Ice Cover Reaches Near 2-Decade High

Updated: 02/25/2014 9:28 AM By: Heidi Enninga

This image shows the ice cover on the Great Lakes in natural color in the early afternoon.
This image shows the ice cover on the Great Lakes in natural color in the early afternoon.
Photo: Photo courtesy of Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MOD

New images and data of the Great Lakes from NASA show ice cover has reached almost 88 percent this month, a level not seen since 1994.

On average, ice coverage is about 50 percent this time of the year, but this February, Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie are almost completely covered.

NASA researchers said the consistently low temperatures in the Great Lakes Region are causing the high ice coverage. While the cold air removes heat from the water until the surface begins to freeze, other factors like clouds, snow, and wind also have an effect.

This winter in particular, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Lab said ice-forming temperatures happened earlier than usual.

The ice season began earlier this year due to cold temperatures in the fall and early winter, George Leshkevich of NOAA’s Great Lakes lab said. "Ice was reported on bays and harbors of the Great Lakes as early as the end of November, as opposed to the normal timing of mid-December."

Maximum ice cover has only surpassed 80 percent five times in four decades. NASA observed the lowest average ice extent in 2002 when only 9.5 percent of the lakes froze.

If ice cover on the Great Lakes is extensive researchers usually see reduced "lake effect" snowfall in the area, but this year, the region has received a fair month of snow thanks to other weather patterns.

Summer lake levels can see positive results from high percentages of ice coverage because it generally reduces evaporation during winter months. It's still too soon to tell if this will be the case in 2014, but higher lake levels would make for better shipping and recreation on the Great Lakes.