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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Science Behind the Weather

Brace for snow as Great Lakes struggle to freeze this winter


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, December 7, 2017, 6:24 PM - Are you prepped for a lot of snow this winter? If you live in the typical snow squall belts around the Great Lakes, you may want to get ready now, because you may be seeing a LOT of the white stuff in the months ahead.

Just this week, Dr. Jia Wang, an ice climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued his forecast for the amount of ice that is expected to develop on the Great Lakes this winter, and it's not looking good. According to his forecast, the lakes are only expected to get up to around 26 per cent ice coverage, overall. That's well below the historic average of 55 per cent.

Lake Erie, being the shallowest, and thus the first to freeze over, is only expected to reach 48 per cent ice coverage, while Lake Superior could see up to 31 per cent, and Lake Huron may reach 28 per cent coverage.


The Great Lakes Ice Forecast for Winter 2017-18. Data courtesy NOAA

Wang cautions that this forecast depends on the various large-scale climate patterns - El Nino/La Nina, the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and the Pacific Oscillation - all behave as expected. These are all indicating a warm trend for the Great Lakes, which will keep the majority of the lake surfaces from freezing over.

If one or more of these patterns shift in the weeks to come, however, it will change the outcome, possibly allowing more ice to form.

If everything does play out as expected throughout the rest of fall and through winter, though, this will be the third winter in a row with very low ice coverage on the lakes.


Maximum annual lake ice coverage from 1973 to 2017. Credit: NOAA

So, even when the lakes reach their peak for ice coverage, likely sometime in February, the view from space could still look like this:


The view from NASA's Aqua satellite, in polar orbit, as it passed over the Great Lakes on March 3, 2010. Credit: NASA Worldview

With all of that open water, and with Dr. Doug Gillham calling for temperatures on the chilly side of 'normal' throughout most of December and well into January, all that's really needed to complete the scenario for snow squalls is winds blowing in the right direction.

That means, anytime the winds set up off of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, there's going to perfect conditions for lake effect snow in southwestern and central Ontario.


Some typical wind directions across the eastern Great Lakes that produce lake effect snow squalls. Credit: Google Earth/Scott Sutherland

The Weather Network's Winter Forecast is calling for greater Great Lakes ice coverage than the new NOAA forecast, which would mean less lake effect snow further into the winter season. We'll be keeping an eye on the lakes going forward, to see just how things are progressing, but everyone along these squall lines should be prepared for a very snowy season to come.

Sources: Great Lakes Today | NOAA GLERL | With files from The Weather Network

Watch Below: Erin Wenckstern explains the science behind lake-effect snowfall



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