Wild Swings in Great Lakes Ice Captured From Space

Great Lakes Ice 2021

Great Lakes ice 2021

Despite a cold snap in February, low ice cover prevailed across the lakes in winter 2020-2021.

In any given year, the formation, movement, and timing of ice cover on the Great Lakes is temperamental—changing substantially with shifts in weather and climate patterns. The 2020-2021 winter season fits that profile, as wild swings in the weather took Great Lakes ice on a wild ride.

Great Lakes Ice, February 2021 Annotated

February 20, 2021. (Click image for wide, high-resolution view.)

The highs and lows are visible in these natural-color images, acquired with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite. On February 20 (image above), total ice cover across the lakes was near the season’s maximum extent of 46.5 percent. By March 3 (image below), ice covered just 15 percent of the lake surfaces.

Interestingly, the maximum ice cover this year was near the 1973-2020 average of 53 percent, according to Jia Wang, an ice climatologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Great Lakes Ice, March 2021 Annotated

March 3, 2021. (Click image for wide, high-resolution view.)

But that’s where the averageness ends. Much of this ice season—which runs from December 1 through April 30—brought very low levels of ice cover. The exception was in early February 2021, when ice made a rapid but short-lived appearance during a visit of frigid Arctic air. “So, I would call it low ice year, despite the February cold snap,” Wang said.

Great Lakes Ice Coverage 2020 2021

The chart above shows the progression of ice coverage during the 2020-2021 season. According to Wang, air temperatures are the main factor affecting ice cover on the Great Lakes. This season started with unseasonably mild temperatures, as much as 8° Fahrenheit (4.5° Celsius) above normal through mid-January. Lake Erie—the shallowest of the Great Lakes and often the first to freeze—had one of the lowest amounts of ice on record for the time of year.

Early February brought a dramatic shift. Temperatures plummeted as low as 17° F (9.4° C) below normal and blue lakes transformed into white lakes. But when temperatures climbed again in mid-February, the fragile ice cover broke up and melted as fast as it had formed. “I expected cold weather would remain for another two weeks until the end of February,” Wang said. “I did not expect it to come and go so fast.”

Ice cover on the Great Lakes can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, controlled by four patterns of climate variability: the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. The highest maximum ice cover (94.7 percent) on record occurred in 1979, and the lowest maximum (11.9 percent) occurred in 2002. Low ice cover also prevailed during the 2019-2020 season. The long-term trend in ice cover has generally been downward, declining about 5 percent each decade since the early 1970s.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE, GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and lake ice data from NOAA – Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

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