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Lack of Ice on the Great Lakes

To be sure, the winter of 2011-2012 has (so far) not been very typical in terms of temperature and snowfall for much of the Great Lakes region. As shown in the maps below (courtesy of the Midwest Regional Climate Center), average temperatures from December 1, 2011 through February 5, 2012 have been running several degrees above normal across the entire region, and only a small portion of the area has come close to or exceeded normal snowfall amounts for that period of time. What not everyone may realize, however, is that there is currently less ice on the Great Lakes than there typically is this time of year -- a direct result of the warmer than normal temperatures the region has been experiencing.

Average Temperature (Observed)

Average Temperature (Departure from Normal)

Snowfall (Observed)

Snowfall (Percent of Normal)

When constructing a forecast, meteorologists spend time analyzing many different types of satellite imagery. Most often they use these images to determine the height, thickness, and location of cloud cover. However, satellite imagery can also show the presence of other important elements that forecasters need to be aware of, such as fog, snow cover, smoke plumes from wild fires, and frozen bodies of water. There are two main types of satellites that provide these types of images: geostationary and polar orbiting. Geostationary satellites orbit the earth high above the equator (at an altitude of more than 22,000 miles) at a speed that matches the earth's rotation, allowing them to monitor the same area of the earth's atmosphere 24/7. Polar orbiting satellites, as their name implies, circle the earth in a roughly north-south fashion above the poles and at a much lower altitude (roughly 530 miles). As a result of their lower altitude, polar orbiting satellites offer much higher resolution images than geostationary satellites.

These striking satellite images of the Great Lakes from February 4th-6th came from NASA polar orbiting satellites equipped with special observing instrumentation known as MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer). One can see only a little ice cover over the northern and western bays and inlets of Lake Superior. Lake Michigan currently exhibits only patchy ice cover in Green Bay, and Lake Huron has only a small area of ice visible in Saginaw Bay and very little in its typically ice-covered northern areas. While ice usually forms over the northeastern fringes of Lake Ontario by this time of year, none can be easily seen at this time. And while much of Lake Erie is ordinarily covered by ice this time of year due to its relatively shallow depth, only a small amount of ice can be seen over the western portion.

Lake Michigan

Lake Superior

Lake Huron

Lake Ontario

Lake Erie
NOTE:Current MODIS imagery of the Great Lakes can be found on NOAA's Great Lakes CoastWatch website.

Below is a map taken from NOAA's Great Lakes Ice Atlas. It shows the median ice cover over the Great Lakes during the first week of February over a 30-year period from 1973 to 2002. One can see that ice usually develops near the shorelines of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan by this point in winter. In addition, Green Bay, Saginaw Bay, the Straits of Mackinac, and much of Lake Erie are almost always frozen over by this point in the season, but that is not the case this winter.

With two thirds of meteorological winter (December to February) already behind us, it is unlikely that we will see a "normal" amount of ice on the Great Lakes during the remainder of this season. Climatologically, temperatures are usually coldest during January and slowly begin to rise as February progresses. Moreover, the Climate Prediction Center's outlook for the remainder of February calls for a good chance for continued above normal temperatures across the region. Of course that is just a monthly average, and any short-lived cold snaps could certainly result in the formation of a bit more ice on the Great Lakes.

Michael Kurz, Meteorologist Intern

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Wilmington Ohio Weather Forecast Office
1901 South State Route 134
Wilmington, OH 45177
Tel: (937) 383-0031
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Page last modified: February 6, 2012.
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