Space & Innovation

Great Lakes Nearly Ice-Free: Thanks, El Nino

Nobody's going to be camping out on Lake Erie this season. Continue reading →

El Nino, a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean, is known to have effects on weather across the planet, some of them in surprising places far from the ocean.

This year's unusually powerful El Nino, for example, has changed weather patterns around the Great Lakes, and the result is a startling reduction in their ice cover compared to 2015 and 2016, according to data compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation scientists.

NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reports that as of Feb. 3, only 5.7 percent of the lakes' surface is covered by ice, making them virtually ice-free. That's a huge decline from 2015, when about 50 percent of the surface was frozen, and an even bigger drop from 2014, when nearly 72 percent was solid.

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Accuweather explains that in the previous two winters, early intrusions of Arctic air, combined with persistent below-normal temperatures, made for conditions in which the ice developed and expanded across a large portion of the lakes' surface. This winter, however, the weather was much milder in November and December, with temperatures near or above normal across the region.

As a result, even after the weather got colder in January, it didn't drop enough to cause a rapid accumulation of lake ice, according to Accuweather meteorologist Todd Miner.

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El Nino's effect on the lakes has been documented ever since measurements of lake ice were first systematically gathered back in the early 1970s, according to chief meteorologist Mark Torregrossa. The two strongest El Nino patterns in that period, 1982-83 and 1997-98, had only 18.1 percent and 11.5 percent peak ice cover respectively. But this winter looks to be even more sparse, ice-wise.

One particularly effect of the dearth of ice: We're unlikely to be running any pictures this year of hardy local adventurers hiking and camping overnight on frozen Lake Erie.

After we ran a blog post about how Lake Erie was almost completely frozen over, we got an email from Cleveland resident Mike Sutadji, who had some even more surprising news. He and his buddy Ariel Travis actually had ventured 2.5 miles out onto the ice and spent the night there in a tent, enduring temperatures that dropped to just 9 degrees Fahrenheit. They've got the pictures to prove it. After Travis, seen above, saw National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charts showing the ice thickness on Lake Erie, the two got inspired to venture out onto the lake's frozen surface.

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Sutadji and Travis hiked used a NOAA chart showing the thickness in various areas. "When people watched us walk out from the beach, they looked at us like we were crazy," Sutadji recalls.

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Travis and Sutadji, climbing on ice ridges. "It was like we were on Antarctica, not near Cleveland," Sutadji says.  

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Here's a closeup of a lighthouse that the two men saw during their hike.

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At night, out on the frozen lake, Cleveland exuded an otherworldly glow in the distance. The nighttime temperature dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. "Next time, we're going to bring a warmer tent," said Sutadji.

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The men didn't see anyone else out on the frozen lake. They had cellphones to keep in contact with people on land, and a small supply of provisions -- canned tuna, beans and mandarin oranges.

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Another view of Cleveland from the frozen surface of Lake Erie. At one point, the two men found themselves enveloped in fog, which made the environment seem even more isolated and alien.

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