NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The latest news and information about NOAA research in and around the Great Lakes


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Looking back: The ups and downs of Great Lakes ice cover in 2021

Ice formations cover a pier on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Holland, MI. February 27, 2021. Credit: Clarice Farina.

It’s no secret that the Great Lakes had a wild ride in terms of ice cover this past winter. From a slow start that led to near-record low ice cover in January, to the sudden widespread freeze just a few weeks later, here’s a look back at how ice cover on the lakes has fluctuated during the 2020-2021 ice season.

As we highlighted in our last blog post on historic ice data, January 2021 had the second-lowest overall Great Lakes ice cover on record since 1973 (with the very lowest being January 2002). For all five individual lakes, January 2021 was in the top five lowest ice-cover Januarys since 1973.

This graph shows average Great Lakes ice cover for the month of January every year from 1973 to 2021, organized by lowest ice cover (far left) to highest ice cover (far right). Credit: NOAA GLERL.

Starting out at 10.65% on February 1st, ice cover rose dramatically over the next three weeks with the region’s extreme cold weather. Growing quickly and steadily, total Great Lakes ice cover finally topped out at 45.84% on February 19th. But with air temperatures warming back up shortly afterwards, this spike was short-lived. Within a week it was back down to around 20% and continued to taper off, falling below 1% on April 3rd and reaching 0.1% on April 20.

This graph shows Great Lakes ice cover in 2021 (black line) compared to the historical average ice cover from 1973-2020 (red line). Credit: NOAA GLERL.

This Winter vs. The Long-Term Average

While all five lakes were far below their January average, each one did something a little different during February, when compared to its 1973-2020 average. The following graphs show this winter’s ice cover (black line) vs. the 1973-2020 average (red line) for each lake.⁣

Lake Erie ice cover jumped dramatically up to 81% in the second week of February, well above its average seasonal peak of around 65%. It stayed above 75% for about two weeks until falling back down below its average at the beginning of March.


Lake Michigan ice cover increased steadily throughout February, with its highest percentage being 33% on February 18th — only briefly staying above its average for that time period. It dropped off quickly the following week, then decreased gradually throughout March.

Lake Superior spent about a week in mid-February above its average ice cover for those days, peaking at about 51% on February 19th. Similar to Lake Michigan, it only stayed above its average for a short interval before rapidly falling back down under 20%.

Lake Ontario ice cover took a while to ramp up, staying below 10% until mid-February. It reached maximum ice cover on February 18th, topping out at about 21% – slightly higher than its average for that day.


Lake Huron was the only lake that did not reach above-average ice cover for the entire winter. Its peak ice cover was 48% on February 20th, which was about the same as its average for that time of year.

Melting into Spring

Throughout March, ice cover on all five lakes continued to decrease steadily, with the exception of a spike in ice cover around the second week of the month likely due to fluctuations in air temperature. For Lakes Erie and Ontario, this short-lived jump was enough to get them back up near their average early March ice cover for a few days. 

As for the timing of each lake’s peak 2021 ice cover compared with the average, Lakes Erie, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario all peaked later than their average, while Lake Superior is the only one that peaked earlier than its average.

Ice covers the Lake Huron shoreline in Oscoda, MI on February 15, 2021. Credit: G. Farina, NOAA GLERL.

This winter’s maximum seasonal ice cover of 45.8% is just 7.5% less than the long-term average of 53.3%. While it’s below the average, it’s still more than double the 2020 seasonal maximum of 19.5% ice cover, but is just over half the 2019 seasonal maximum of 80.9%. With so much year-to-year variability, forecasting ice cover each year can be incredibly difficult. NOAA GLERL’s experimental ice forecast, updated in mid-February, predicted Great Lakes ice cover in 2021 to peak at 38% – not too far off from what it really was. NOAA GLERL continues to analyze both current and historical data to refine the ice forecast model, working to actively improve our experimental Great Lakes ice forecast each year.

This graph shows annual maximum ice cover on the Great Lakes each year from 1973 to 2021. Credit: NOAA GLERL.

For more on NOAA GLERL’s Great Lakes ice cover research and forecasting, visit our ice homepage here: https://go.usa.gov/xsRnM⁣

⁣Plus, access these graphs plus more Great Lakes CoastWatch graphs & data here: https://go.usa.gov/xsRnt⁣

Flat, jagged pieces of ice float in Lake Huron near Oscoda, MI on February 15, 2021. Credit: G. Farina, NOAA GLERL.


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Great Lakes in winter: Water levels and ice cover

The Great Lakes, along with their connecting waterways and watersheds, make up the largest lake system on the planet—more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater! Water levels on the lakes change in response to a number of factors, and these changes can happen quickly. Changing water levels can have both positive and negative impacts on shipping, fisheries, tourism, and coastal infrastructure like roads, piers, and wetlands.

Currently, water levels on all of the Great Lakes are above their monthly averages, and have been developing since the spring of 2013, when a record-setting two-year rise in water levels began on the upper Great Lakes. Extreme conditions in spring of 2017 produced flooding and widespread damage at the downstream end of the basin—Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. In case you missed it, check out our infographic on this flooding event.

So, what’s happening now that it’s winter?

As we entered the late fall-early winter of 2017-2018, a warm weather pattern had forecasters looking toward a fairly warm winter. However, in late December, the conditions changed and a much colder than normal weather pattern took many folks living in the Great Lakes by surprise. Much like how water levels can change quickly in the Great Lakes, so can ice cover. Due to frigid air temperatures, between December 20 and January 7, total ice cover on the lakes jumped 26.3%. Lake Erie alone jumped up to nearly 90%!

 

 

After January 7th, ice coverage dropped a bit as the air temperatures warmed, then rose again as temperatures went back down, showing again how vulnerable the lakes are to even the slightest changes. Compare where we are now to where we were 2 years ago at this time, and you’ll easily see how variable seasonal ice cover can be in the Great Lakes.

Image depicting Great Lakes total ice cover on on January 15, 2018, compared to 2017 and 2016.

What’s the outlook for ice and water levels?

Below, you’ll find what GLERL researchers expect to see for ice cover this winter, as well as the U.S. Army Corps’ water levels forecast into Spring 2018. Be sure to read further to find out more about the science that goes into these predictions!

—GLERL’s 2018 Seasonal Ice Cover Projection for the Great Lakes—

On 1/3/2018, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory updated the maximum 2018 Great Lakes basinwide ice cover projection to 60%. The long-term average is 55%. The updated forecast reflects changes in teleconnection patterns (large air masses that determine our regional weather) since early December 2017—movement from a strong to a weak La Nina, a negative to a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and a positive to a negative North Atlantic Oscillation. These patterns combine to create colder than average conditions for the Great Lakes.

—Water Levels forecast into spring 2018—

According to the most recent weekly water level update from the U.S. Army Corps, water levels for all of the Great Lakes continue to be above monthly average levels and above last year’s levels at this time. All of the lakes have declined in the last month.  Note that ice developing in the channels and on the lake surface can cause large changes in daily levels during the winter, especially for Lake St. Clair. Over the next month, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are expected to continue their seasonal decline. Lake St.Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario are expected to begin their seasonal rise.


 

More information on water levels and ice cover forecasting

How are water levels predicted in the Great Lakes?

Forecasts of Great Lakes monthly-average water levels are based on computer models, including some from NOAA GLERL, along with more than 150 years of data from past weather and water level conditions. The official 6-month forecast is produced each month through a binational partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

At GLERL, research on water levels in the Great Lakes analyzes all of the components of the Great Lakes water budget. The information we gather is used to improve forecast models. The infographic below goes into more detail about the Great Lakes water budget.

Image depicting the makeup of water budgets in the Great Lakes

How does winter ice cover affect water levels?

As mentioned in the recently released Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook for the Great Lakes, water levels in the Great Lakes tend to decline in late fall and early winter, mainly due to reduced runoff and streamflow combined with higher over-lake evaporation caused by the temperature difference between air and water. Factors such as surface water temperatures, long stretches of cold or warm air temperatures, and winds all impact the amount of lake ice cover as well as extreme winter events, such as lake-effect snow—which we’ve already seen plenty of this winter—and vice versa. All of these factors influence winter water levels in the Great Lakes. The timing and magnitude of snow melt and spring runoff will be major players in the spring rise.

Looking for more info?

You can find more about GLERL’s water levels research, on this downloadable .pdf of the GLERL fact sheet on Great Lakes Water Levels.

View current, historical, and projected water levels on the Great Lakes Water Levels Dashboard at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/dashboard/portal.html.

For more on GLERL’s research on ice in the Great Lakes, check out the Great Lakes Ice fact sheet, or check out our website at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/.

Want to see a really cool graphic showing the extent of the maximum ice cover on the Great Lakes for each year since 1973? You’ll find that here.