No ice on Lake Erie this winter fuels fear for the future

Experts weigh in on how mild temperatures are affecting the lake's ecosystem

It may be January, but Lake Erie is ice free.

According to Mike McKay, director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, as of New Year's Day the Great Lakes' Basin has less than 0.4 per cent ice cover.

Usually at this time of year, the basin should have 10 per cent coverage, while Lake Erie should have 15 to 20 per cent.

Dave Phillips, senior climatologist from Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that the lack of ice is indicative of the higher temperatures in 2023.

"We had the warmest May to September on record," Phillips said. "A lot of residual heat in the lakes and the rivers and the land. So even going in to the ice forming time would've been slow to come ... You've got to get rid of all that heat before you can get the ice to form."

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While things can change quickly, McKay says it's El Niño year — meaning, warmer water temperatures due to bands of warm ocean.

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"NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Climate Prediction Centre, in their last report on Dec. 14 identified this as having a 55 per cent chance of being a strong El Niño year, perhaps one of the five strongest years on record," Mckay said.

"Things are looking to be set up that we will have a mild winter."

Problems on shorelines

With a lack of ice comes a higher chance of more rapid erosion on the shores of the region's lakes.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed with respect to hopefully generating some ice cover on the lakes in the next little while," chief administrative officer of the Essex Region Conservation Authority Tim Byrne said. "Any areas that have not had any kind of erosion protection put in place, we're going to see some active erosion taking place."

CBC: Warmer winters could have implications for plankton in the Great Lakes. (CBC)

Warmer winters could have implications for plankton in the Great Lakes. (CBC)

Byrne thinks that the prospect of milder winters could create havoc on shorelines.

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"Erosion will accelerate in the winter months," he said. "You have no vegetative cover. You have no rooting material present that would attempt to mitigate or slow down the effect of of waves."


At the same time, a lack of ice in the winter creates problems for animals in the Great Lakes.

Ice does not seem like a natural habitat for many animals, but as McKay points out, it's vital for some species.

"Some fish will spawn in the fall and the eggs will over winter," he said. "So things like whitefish for example, ice cover and coastal zones where those fish may spawn actually provide some protection [and] prevents them from being buffeted around by by the waves."

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"Ice cover is a good thing for many reasons."

CBC: Lake Erie has experienced zero ice this winter. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Lake Erie has experienced zero ice this winter. (U.S. Coast Guard)

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Low ice can also affect the food chain. As McKay points out, after an unusually warm winter in 2012, they found that plankton diminished in the lakes.

"We saw a dramatic change in the plankton community, moving from these nutritious large plankton to much smaller size plankton," he said. "The question is: Are there implications for the food web?"

Thumbnail image courtesy of Dave Molnar/CBC News.

This article, written by Oliver Thompson, was originally published for CBC News, with files from Dale Molnar.

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