Great Lakes record historic low ice cover

Lake Ontario has areas near the shore that has frozen due to temperatures being 20 degrees and lower for the past week. Chunks of ice hit the shore and jetty at Hamlin Beach State Park in Hamlin, NY on Jan. 17, 2024. (Provided photo — Tina MacIntyre-Yee/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

ROCHESTER — Ice cover on the Great Lakes is at record-low levels right now, a sign of the winter warmth this year — and with that comes the possibility of late-season lake effect snow.

Ice coverage achieves its statistical peak for the Great Lakes on Feb. 22, but on Feb. 20, there was less than 2% coverage on both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

The average ice coverage for the Great Lakes this week is typically around 40%, based on NOAA data since 1973.

Lake Ontario traditionally sees less ice cover than the other Great Lakes, with the average peak for Lake Ontario at about 20%. Lake Erie, by comparison, has a historical average around 70% at peak.

Ice coverage

So far, the season peak for ice coverage across all of the Great Lakes was at more than 16% on Jan. 22, but it has declined since, with the average across all five lakes now at the record-breaking low of 8.5%.

This February remains within striking distance of the warmest on record for Rochester and it’s a trend seen across the Great Lakes region.

A late-week warmup could push the month back into unprecedented territory.

Those conditions are expected to stick around, with the six- to 10-day and eight- to 14-day temperature outlooks from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center both giving a strong possibility of above normal temperatures through March 1 and March 8, respectively.

Lake effect snow

Higher temperatures and a lack of ice cover on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario means conditions are ripe for possible late-season lake effect snow. The National Weather Service in Binghamton posted to its Facebook page on Wednesday detailing the reason.

“Typically, the Great Lakes freeze throughout winter, cutting off the moisture supply for lake-effect snow to develop,” the post said. “With the lakes being warmer than average and mostly ice-free, this sets the stage for late-season lake effect events.”

As winters warm — and the average winter temperature is trending warmer since 1970 per Climate Central — due to climate change, the Great Lakes are more likely to remain uncovered and relatively warm. As a result, the chance for lake effect snow remains a possibility later into winter in Western New York.

This gives credence to the lake effect paradox, where in the coming decades the amount of lake effect snow could remain the same or even increase due to the uncovered lake. Eventually, however, winter temperatures could warm to the point the air from more northern climes will be too warm to create the instability needed to generate lake effect.

So, there’s still a possibility Rochester or other parts of Western New York could see some snow before wrapping up the winter season despite the warmer than normal temperatures. As it sits, Rochester has had 41.6 inches of snow this winter, well behind the normal mark of 74.4 inches.


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