The Great Lakes Reached a Record Low for Ice Cover on New Year’s Day

The ‘extreme’ lack of ice follows warm temperatures in December and calls attention to recent downward trends in ice coverage on the lakes

Lake Michigan with Chicago skyline in background
Lake Michigan, pictured here in December 2022, had 0.1 percent ice cover on Jan. 1, 2024. Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images

The Great Lakes kicked off 2024 with the lowest amount of ice cover they’ve had on New Year’s Day in at least 50 years, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Caitlin Looby.

On January 1, scientists recorded the average ice cover across all five bodies of water at 0.4 percent—an all-time low for the day since researchers began officially measuring Great Lakes ice cover in 1973. Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were completely devoid of ice, while just 0.1 percent of Lake Michigan was covered on Monday. Lake Superior had ice covering 1 percent of its surface.

Historically, roughly 9 percent of the lakes have been covered with ice on the first day of the year, reports Wisconsin Public Radio’s Danielle Kaeding. Great Lakes ice cover typically reaches its highest level by mid-February, when about 40 percent of the water is frozen over.

Scientists pinned the blame for this year’s lack of ice on warm December temperatures.

“We’ve just had a lack of consistent cold weather,” says James Kessler, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, to Wisconsin Public Radio. “If you don’t get consistent cold air, you’re not going to get ice formation.”

The record low on January 1 is “extreme,” but scientists noted that it’s still early in the ice season, Kessler tells the Washington Post’s Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff. In addition, it’s difficult to extrapolate much from one-day lows—month-long averages are much more statistically significant, Kessler adds.

“If the month of January as a whole is on average lower than past Januarys, that will be more remarkable to me,” he tells CNN’s Rachel Ramirez.

Though ice cover fluctuates from year to year, overall, it’s been trending downward of late: Scientists have recorded below-average ice cover on the Great Lakes in 16 of the last 25 years, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to one estimate, average ice cover on the Great Lakes declined by roughly 70 percent between 1973 and 2017.

Last year, average ice cover for the entire winter was just 6.2 percent, which represents the fourth-lowest amount since scientists began keeping track.

Researchers say human-caused climate change is at least partially responsible for the declining ice cover on the Great Lakes. However, it’s difficult to untangle global warming from natural year-to-year fluctuations and normal climate cycles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, scientists worry that ice cover will continue to fall in the future, which could have several ripple effects. Less ice means more water is exposed, which could cause more “lake effect” snowstorms in neighboring communities. Ice also helps protect the coastline from high waves that can cause erosion and flooding. In addition, many nearby communities rely on frozen lakes for tourism, since they hold ice fishing tournaments or ice hockey games during the winter.

Animals are also affected by ice cover. Some fish and microorganisms lay their eggs in the fall, then rely on ice for protection during the winter. A lack of ice can also give rise to blue-green algae blooms and phytoplankton blooms, which can affect the amount of oxygen in the water and impact the food chain in turn.

But at least one industry benefits from the lack of ice: commercial shipping. With less ice covering the lakes, they can navigate waters later into winter. On December 29, a Canadian ship called the Nordika Desgagnes sailed out of Duluth, Minnesota, toward Ireland with a load of beet pulp pellets. That’s the latest any ocean-bound vessel has exited the city’s port since record-keeping began in 1959, per Wisconsin Public Radio.

“This is a huge industry and ice cover really hinders—and during the highest years—shuts down the shipping industry,” Kessler tells Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton.

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