Great Lakes Ice ‘Cool To Look At’ But Very Dangerous

By Kimberly Ingram, Contributing Writer
OSWEGO, NY – It finally looks like some warm weather is headed our way and will actually last.

However, the lingering cold weather may have taken a toll on more than just our heating bills.

Lake Ontario view from SUNY Oswego shoreline.
Lake Ontario ice view from SUNY Oswego shoreline.

The Great Lakes nearly froze completely this winter, with ice coverage reaching a high of 93 percent on March 6, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Increasing ice is due to a frigid winter with below-freezing temperatures. This is the most coverage the Great Lakes have seen since February 1979, when 95 percent was reached, according to GLERL.

When ice levels hit their highest peaks this season, lakes Superior, Erie and Huron were 95 percent covered in ice. Lake Michigan reached about 80 percent coverage, while Lake Ontario managed to stay the least covered, according to GLERL, with 42 percent of the lake covered. The ice covered around 86,000 square miles.

“Over the years and historically, Ontario is the least ice covered lake,” according to Jia Wang, Research Ice Climatologist/ Physical Oceanographer at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “Because of its depth and warmth, it contains more heat content at its water column than other lakes nearby, such as Lake Erie.”

Ice coverage can have a great effect on the ecosystem and animals. The water level this coming summer will rise due to ice and also due to heavier snow cover this year.

“It will provide healthier environment to the lake since it may constrain the growth harmful algae bloom, and invasive species,” Wang said. “It is good news for the Great Lakes.”

“Current lake levels are relatively low compared the 1980s through early 2000s, although they are not at historic lows,” according to Michael Schummer, professor of the Department of Biological Sciences at SUNY Oswego.

Oswego Harbor starved ducks – Photo provided by Michael Schummer
Oswego Harbor starved ducks – Photo provided by Michael Schummer

This ice coverage, however, was very problematic this winter for waterbirds that have traditionally wintered in the open water areas of the Great Lakes, he added.

“The total numbers are not available, but I’d estimate that more than 10,000 birds starved on the Great Lakes this year because of continued and persistent ice coverage well into March,” Schummer said.

With few open water areas, ducks that feed mostly on mussels and fish struggled.

In the Port City, this was evident at Oswego Harbor, where dead ducks were observed on the ice since late January.

For birds, it is not only substantial ice cover that can be problematic, but coverage variability among years that makes habitat availability unpredictable, according to Schummer.

Main reasons why Lake Ontario didn’t freeze quite has much as the other Great Lakes has to do with its depth and location. Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes at about 19,000 square kilometers, but is also the second deepest lake, with depths averaging at 85 meters.

Because of its depth and smaller surface area, the lake didn’t reach as much coverage, according to GLERL.

Lake Ontario always has the lowest amount of ice because it is a very deep lake and has the ability to store summer heat for a long time, according to Anne Clites, Physical Scientist at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

This is why the deepest parts of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan are the last to freeze over.

In addition, Ontario is somewhat protected by other lakes from major weather systems that come primarily from northwest and west areas, Clites said.

Lake Ontario is not only a deep water lake, but also farther east than the other Great lakes, another reason it is seeing less coverage.

The Great Lakes, in general, reached such a high level of ice coverage this year due to polar vortexes occurring one after another, intruding on the Great Lakes region, according Wang. The colder the temperature, the more ice occurs.

Along with the animals of Oswego, students at SUNY Oswego had their access to the lake restricted during the cold months.

“Lake Ontario, because of its depth, does not completely freeze over as the other Great Lakes do,” said Assistant Chief Kevin Velzy of the New York State University Police. “This is why we can get late winter and early spring lake effect snow storms, whereas places like Buffalo usually get lesser amounts of snow once Lake Erie freezes.”

Lake Ontario ice coverage as seen from Cayuga Hall at SUNY Oswego
Lake Ontario ice coverage as seen from Cayuga Hall at SUNY Oswego

What results is pack ice, huge mountains of snow and ice along the shoreline, which is “cool to look at, but very dangerous to walk on,” Velzy said.

Waves underneath the snow and ice can wash away large areas under the ice, meaning that some spots of pack ice may be 12 feet thick, while some may only be 12 inches thick.

“We have been very lucky over the years, recently. But, about 30 years ago a student was out on the pack ice, fell through and drowned,” Velzy said. “This is why students are prohibited from walking out on the lake shore during the winter months.”

Whenever University Police finds people on the ice, they order them back to shore. Often their names will be taken and a police report is generated.  Students are not arrested, but may have to answer to the Student Code and Conduct Committee.

Messages are put out on the college’s digital signage and in the student handbook about these dangers, according to Velzy.