US Great Lakes ice hits record low: What does that mean for the world’s largest freshwater system?

A layer of ice covers Lake Michigan, 2 February 2023, in Chicago.
A layer of ice covers Lake Michigan, 2 February 2023, in Chicago. Copyright AP Photo/Erin Hooley
By Euronews Green with AP
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The lakes hit their lowest ice cover in over 50 years last month, with experts warning that toxic algal blooms and lower fish stocks could follow.

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Biologists have been keeping tabs on a remote Lake Superior island's fragile wolf population every winter since 1958. But they had to cut this season's planned seven-week survey short after just a fortnight.

The ski plane the Michigan Tech University researchers study the wolves from uses the frozen lake as a landing strip because there's nowhere to touch down on the island. But this weirdly warm winter left the Great Lakes nearly devoid of ice.

As climate change accelerates, scientists are scrambling to understand how iceless winters could affect the world's largest freshwater system.

Most of the effects are still theoretical since the lakes are generally too treacherous for data-gathering expeditions during the coldest months and biologists have long thought that little ecological activity takes place under the ice anyway.

But they say the changes could have serious environmental, economic and cultural impacts, including by harming certain fish species, eroding beaches, fueling algae blooms and clogging shipping channels.

“This year really drives home the point that we need to collect more data,” says Trista Vick-Majors, an assistant biology professor who studies aquatic ecosystems at Michigan Tech.

“There's just no way you can predict how an ecosystem is going to respond to the large-scale changes we're looking at.”

Great Lakes’ ice cover was only 3 per cent in February

Sunlight reflects off of Lake Michigan at Montrose Harbor on an unseasonably warm day, 27 February 2024, in Chicago.
Sunlight reflects off of Lake Michigan at Montrose Harbor on an unseasonably warm day, 27 February 2024, in Chicago.Erin Hooley/AP

The planet experienced record heat for an eighth-straight month in January, according to the European climate agency.

The upper Midwest has been no exception, with Chicago experiencing temperatures of around 21 degrees Celsius late last month and Wisconsin getting its first February tornadoes.

Ice coverage on the lakes, which have a combined surface area roughly the size of the UK, has generally peaked in mid-February over the last 50 years, with as much as 91 per cent of the lakes covered at times, according to the Great Lakes Ice Tracker website.

As of mid-February this year, only 3 per cent of the lakes was covered, which was the lowest figure since at least 1973, when the site's records begin.

How could low ice cover change the Great Lakes?

Researchers don't have much data about how years of iceless winters could change the lakes, but they have plenty of theories.

Iceless lakes could absorb sunlight faster and warm up sooner in the spring. Some biologists speculate that this could lead to earlier and larger blue-green algae blooms, which can be toxic to humans and put a damper on summer tourism.

Without ice, the lakes' upper levels will likely warm even more quickly than usual, contributing to thermal stratification, in which layers of colder and warmer water form. Less oxygen would make it into the lower, colder and denser levels, which could cause plankton and other organisms to die, some scientists believe.

Whitefish and lake trout typically hatch in the spring and feed on plankton, so less plankton would likely cause fish populations to shrink, potentially leading to tighter fishing quotas and higher prices at grocery stores and restaurants.

Less ice could translate to longer fishing seasons, but winter storms could wreck nets and traps and destroy whitefish eggs that rely on the ice for protection, says Titus Seilheimer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison fisheries specialist.

How do fishers feel about the Great Lakes' ice shrinkage?

Charlie Henrikson runs a small commercial fishing operation off Wisconsin's Door County peninsula. He says his boats have been setting nets in February when they typically don't start the season until late March.

He is most concerned about the lack of ice leading to more evaporation, which would cause lake levels to drop and make it harder to get his boats into port.

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“I'm 71 years old, so I of course like it warmer. I like being able to walk out on the dock here and not have icy conditions. Whatever you want to call it, the weather's changing. And we're getting more extreme conditions. It will change our strategy and we'll be able to figure out ways to make use of it. You always have to adapt."

Less ice also could lead to a longer lake shipping season. But without ice blanketing the lakes, powerful winter storms could erode shorelines more than usual, which could push more sediment into harbors and make them shallower and trickier to navigate, says Eric Peace, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, a trade group.

Coupled with lower lake levels due to increased evaporation, ships might have to carry less cargo so they would sit higher in the water, he adds.

Researchers brave sub-zero temperatures to collect lake water

Rae-Ann Eifert, a lake monitor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, braved sub-freezing temperatures to gather buckets of water for testing off Lake Michigan.
Rae-Ann Eifert, a lake monitor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, braved sub-freezing temperatures to gather buckets of water for testing off Lake Michigan.AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

This year's lack of ice enabled Michigan Tech's Vick-Majors to launch a project to gather winter-specific data that scientists can compare to summer data. Researchers from around the Great Lakes are participating in sampling this month.

On a recent day, Madeline Magee and Rae-Ann Eifert, lake monitors for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, braved sub-freezing temperatures to gather buckets of lake water off a Racine breakwater as part of Vick-Majors' project.

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The lake was completely open, an emerald expanse stretching to the horizon, and the wind was howling. High swells pounded the beach and showered Eifert as she stood on the breakwater, leaving her ski trousers coated with beads of ice. Magee says the project is worth it.

“Continuing the data collection moving forward will only further inform what we know about the Great Lakes and how we might be able to manage the lakes more efficiently," she says. 

"If we lose ice cover, we really are changing the fundamental ecosystem of the Great Lakes in ways that we don't really understand right now."

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