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The Great Lakes are almost completely covered with ice

CHEBOYGAN, Mich. (AP) - From the bridge of the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, northern Lake Huron looks like a vast, snow-covered field dotted with ice slabs as big as boulders - a battleground for the icebreaker's 58-member crew during one of the roughest winters in memory.

It's been so bitterly cold for so long in the Upper Midwest that the Great Lakes are almost completely covered with ice. The last time they came this close was in 1994, when 94 percent of the lakes' surface was frozen.

As of Friday, ice cover extended across 88 percent, according to the federal government's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

Sections of the lakes, which hold nearly one-fifth of the freshwater on the world's surface, harden almost every winter. That freezing keeps the Coast Guard's fleet of nine icebreakers busy clearing paths for vessels hauling essential cargo such as heating oil, salt and coal. But over the past four decades, the average ice cover has receded 70 percent, scientists say, probably in part because of climate change.

Still, as this season shows, short-term weather patterns can trump multi-year trends. Winter arrived early and with a vengeance and refuses to loosen its grip.

"That arctic vortex came down, and the ice just kept going," said George Leshkevich, a physical scientist with the federal lab.

The Great Lakes Are Almost Completely Frozen Over

The deep freeze is more than a novelty. By limiting evaporation, it may help replenish lake water levels - a process that began last year after a record-breaking slump dating to the late 1990s. Also getting relief are cities along the lakes that have been pummeled with lake-effect snow, which happens when cold air masses suck up moisture from open waters and dump it over land.

Buffalo, N.Y, got nearly 43 inches of snow in January, but this month just 13 inches have fallen, a decline resulting largely from the freeze-over of Lake Erie even though Lake Ontario has remained largely open, said forecaster Jon Hitchcock of the National Weather Service.

Heavy ice can also protect fish eggs from predators, and it has delighted photographers, ice anglers and daredevil snowmobilers.

At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, the rock-solid cover has allowed around 35,000 visitors to trudge miles over Lake Superior to explore caves featuring dazzling ice formations. It's the first time in five years the lake surface has been firm enough to allow passage.

With no letup in the cold, the ice hasn't experienced the usual thaw-and-freeze cycle, so nature's artistry is even more delicate and beautiful, with needle-like hoarfrost crystals sprinkled across sheets that dangle from cave ceilings like giant chandeliers.

"Seeing them like this is almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said.

There's even an (apparently) tongue-in-cheek Facebook page inviting people to join a convoy of snowmobiles, cars and other vehicles on a nearly 80-mile trek across Lake Michigan. Never mind that its waters remain partly open and experts warn the ice can be dangerously unstable.

"If it freezes, and you miss this chance, when will it happen again?" the page says. "Feel free to invite more folks!"

For Coast Guard icebreaker teams, it's all business. They've logged four times more hours this season than the average for the same period in recent years, said Kyle Niemi, spokesman for the agency's Cleveland district headquarters.

The 240-foot-long Mackinaw began its duties Dec. 16 - several weeks earlier than usual - and worked nonstop until Feb. 8, when traffic slowed enough to allow a break.

"As you can imagine, the crew's tired," Cmdr. Michael Davanzo said this week during a tour of the ship in its home port of Cheboygan.

A 35-year Coast Guard veteran who has spent 12 years on the lakes, Davanzo said this winter is the toughest he's experienced because the ice came so soon and is so thick and widespread, and the weather has been constantly bitter.

The Mackinaw, commissioned in 2006 to replace an older vessel with the same name, is designed specifically for duty on the Great Lakes. It's propelled by two "Azipod" thrusters that can spin 360 degrees and fire jets of water at adjacent ice, weakening it. Sometimes the crew will drive the ship's bow onto an ice sheet to crack it with sheer weight. Or they'll go backward, chopping up ice with the propeller blades.

When the going gets tough, there's the battering-ram option - hurling the reinforced hull directly against walls of ice that can be several feet thick.

The workload typically drops sharply after navigational locks on the St. Marys River, the link between Lakes Superior and Huron, close in mid-January and most large cargo haulers dock for winter. But the ice was so thick this year that a number of freighters were still struggling to complete final deliveries days later. Even now, demand for road salt and heating oil in the Midwest is keeping some icebreakers busy.

One day last month, the Mackinaw spent 16 grueling hours helping a freighter squeeze through a narrow 3.5-mile section of the St. Marys. As the Mackinaw attacks the ice, the engines roar and the ship vibrates. The noise and motion are "like living in an earthquake 16 hours a day," Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Alderman said.

Davanzo hopes for rain and warmer temperatures that would melt some ice before the locks reopen in late March, when the Mackinaw will venture onto Lake Superior and clear paths for iron ore and coal haulers.

"But if the weather stays like this," he said, "we could be breaking ice all the way to the middle of May."

Despite the inconvenience, there's a silver lining for shippers. Since the low-water period began in late 1990s, they've been forced to carry lighter loads to avoid scraping bottom in shallow channels and harbors. Heavy snow and rain in 2013 finally raised water levels.

Ice cover blocks evaporation, the leading cause of low water. It also will keep the lakes cooler for a longer time this year, delaying the onset of heavy evaporation season, scientist John Lenters reported in a paper last month, although the benefit is partially offset by stepped-up evaporation shortly before the ice forms.

In Lake Superior, snowbound Isle Royale National Park is home to a dwindling and inbred wolf population that is usually trapped on the island. Biologists hope a newcomer or two will venture to the park now that the lake is almost entirely frozen over. The park's first wolves are believed to have crossed an ice bridge from Canada, 15 miles away, in the late 1940s.

There's also a chance that one or more of the island's wolves could grab the rare opportunity to escape.

"They are inveterate travelers," veteran wolf expert Rolf Peterson said. "And they don't need a reason that would make sense to us."

Join the discussion

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darylland February 14 2014 at 7:01 PM

This reminds me of why I left Buffalo forty years ago and moved to Southern California.

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1 reply
johnmustang darylland February 14 2014 at 7:05 PM

i heard that Southern California is having the opposite problem and is too dry.

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welcome bozo February 15 2014 at 7:07 AM

if you are cold turn on your heat. if you are hot turn on your AC. anything but quit whining about global warming. when i was a kid, a long time ago, we had hot summers and cold winters. i think, and i could be wrong, but i think this is called seasonal change and is part of nature. if you want to whimper and whine about the "end is near", knock your socks off. me, i`m going to enjoy the comforts of life provided by modern science.

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rraahh1 February 15 2014 at 9:50 AM

What happened to global warming..... just big Al lining his pockets....

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1 reply
mickylitz2 rraahh1 February 15 2014 at 9:54 AM

Along with many others.....

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Cindy P February 14 2014 at 7:28 PM

The History Channel aired a program a few years ago called "The Little Ice Age." It explained the cyclical cold climate changes. It was clear that this has happened before and lasts approximately 150-200 years on average. I think it is the earth refreshing itself. The temperatures have been extremely cold this winter and a large snowfall has made things difficult in some areas, but if it refreshes the earth and slows the evaporation process of large lakes, it is a benefit.

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1 reply
Hi Valerie! Cindy P February 14 2014 at 7:46 PM

the al gore group will Never understand this Cindy. augh must be bliss to be so ignorant! perhaps they are the lucky ones! lol

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bob February 15 2014 at 7:32 AM

Evaluating weather trends/climate change requires a long view. There are believers and non believers of Global warming. If someone could prove without a shadow of doubt that Global Warming exists, how long do you think it would take society to change? This is a global issue not a US problem. Look at the spew created by Chinese manufacturing. Does the world have the discipline to change? I think not. Collectively, the governments of every nation on planet earth would need to be on the same page in order to affect weather trends. And governments have such a great history of taking a long view (sic). There are over 6 billion humans on this globe and the world population is growing. Controlling CO2....com'on.

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1 reply
pjsowe bob February 15 2014 at 7:43 AM

If you will note the propaganda from the environmental extremeist no longer terms it 'Global Warming' it is now refered to as 'Climate Change'. This is much more encompasing. So if it's warm or cold, wet or dry it's classified as climate change to support their cause. Just political spinmasters.
That being said, I agree that uncontrolled pumping of junk into the air and water as in China and India cannot be good. What I do disagree with are all the idiotic things being pushed by the politicians in this country. One more smog control device on my weed whacker will have no impact in the grand global scheme.
Here in the Northeast the fed has subsidized acres of solar panels that have been useless for months as they are covered with snow. Stupid.

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2 replies
cavemaster1110 pjsowe February 15 2014 at 7:48 AM

all the extremists do is rip off money

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atvtraining pjsowe February 15 2014 at 8:16 AM

And why to we allow it to happen, buy American, pay more and put the Chinese out of the market

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joseph88keyz February 15 2014 at 7:32 AM

...it's Michigan..and it's winter. hello??...

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1 reply
miriamisrael1 joseph88keyz February 15 2014 at 7:49 AM

I love your avatar :-)

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nnlawrence February 14 2014 at 7:26 PM

To those who campaign for major solutions to whatever problem they PERCIEVE; take it in stride; LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT, AND SHUT UP!! If it's truly a problem that must be solved, time will certainly prove it so without demonstrations, yelling from the rooftops, or (God help us) "journalistic reporting"... no, that is journalistic OPINION today! Jefferson13 is right , we don't actually know who contributes what to REAL global warming; but when those who KNOW find out, then we can consider genoside...that would do it? do you think? but who'd decide who?

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gahmmie February 14 2014 at 7:26 PM

I was brought up on Lake St. Claire in Ont. That Lake would freeze every year. We would ice skate on it and people would ice fish and go on there ice boats. Such fun back then. That was in the late 40's and 50's.

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clifton February 15 2014 at 7:43 AM

The Year Without a Summer (also known as the Poverty Year, The Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death[1]) was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F),[2] resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.[3][4] Evidence suggests that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years. The Little Ice Age, then in its concluding decades, may also have been a factor.[attribution needed]

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1 reply
thorrsman clifton February 15 2014 at 8:02 AM

When you copy directly from Wiki, you need to delete out the parts that clearly show you were copying and pasting.

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1 reply
kitharris1 thorrsman February 15 2014 at 12:47 PM


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Judy February 14 2014 at 7:35 PM

That's Right! It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

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