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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space and Everything In-Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

See a nearly frozen Lake Erie before it starts to melt

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, January 8, 2018, 12:44 PM - The frigid blast from the Polar Vortex has caused Lake Erie to nearly completely freeze over as of Monday, but watch how quickly a brief respite from the cold causes that ice to melt.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Dec 27, and has been updated with current information.

With temperatures over the past two weeks dipping down into the minus 20s, with punishing wind chills in the minus 30s, the amount of ice on the Great Lakes surged from near zero up to nearly 30 per cent coverage, and Lake Erie - the shallowest of the Great Lakes - saw over 85 per cent ice coverage by Monday morning.

The view of Lake Erie from Jan 6, 2018, from NASA's Aqua satellite, in low-Earth orbit. Cloudy conditions over the lake on Jan 7 prevented capturing as clear a view. Source: NASA Worldview

When cold snaps creep down over the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is typically the first to freeze over, to at least some extent, as its shallow waters give up their stored heat much faster than the other, deeper lakes.

As of Monday, January 8, 2018, Lake Erie has over 85 per cent ice coverage, according to NOAA.

As the graphic above indicates, the total lake ice concentration for the Great Lakes was still only 29.5 per cent, as of January 7. That's significantly higher than what was seen on that date for the past two years (11 per cent in 2017 and 2.3 per cent in 2016), however, overall, the Great Lakes are still struggling to freeze at this time, due to the heat trapped in the deeper lakes.

With the thaw happening this week, as that particular lobe of the Polar Vortex moves on and a warmer pattern takes its place, this will cause a significant melt on the lakes, especially for Lake Erie. Ice concentrations on the lake are expected to drop from over 85 per cent on Monday, to less than 60 per cent on Saturday!

The hourly ice concentration forecast animation from Jan 8-13, 2018. The small white hexagon in the western part of the lake represents Pelee Island. Credit: NOAA GLERL

In addition, based on the forecasts for the other lakes, total ice concentration for the entire Great Lakes basin is expected to drop to around 17-18 per cent by the end of this week. So, at least for the moment, this supports the forecast that NOAA's lake ice forecaster, Dr. Jia Wang, had issued back in early December.

While Dr. Wang's forecast was for only a 28 per cent maximum ice coverage for the Great Lakes, for the entire season, due to the heat that was still stored in the lakes by November, the official winter forecast from The Weather Network disagrees. Meteorologist Dr. Doug Gillham is calling for more ice to develop on the lakes, due to frigid blasts such as the one we're experiencing right now. With the potential for more frigid Arctic air to move over the Great Lakes sometime next week, after it moves on from the Prairies, this could drive lake ice through another growth spurt. How much growth will depend on how long that Arctic blast sticks around.

Either way, Lake Huron is still over two-thirds open water right now, and unlikely to freeze much more, for the time being. That means, depending on the wind direction, southern Ontario can still look forward to the possibility of even more lake effect snow in the weeks to come.

Near miss for a December freeze-up

With all of the Arctic air streaming across the Great Lakes in the last week of 2017 and the first week of 2018, it set up the perfect conditions for a quick freeze-up over Lake Erie. Shortly after the Christmas holiday, forecasters in the National Weather Service office in Buffalo were saying that there was a good chance that they could see Lake Erie completely freeze over before the end of 2017. If so, that would have been the first time the lake had done so in 17 years.

"Lake Erie has now dropped to 33F [0.6oC] at Buffalo as of the morning of December 28th," they said in their December 29 forecast discussion. "These very cold temperatures could produce a lake freeze by the end of December. If the lake were to freeze in December it would be the first time the lake has frozen over in December since the year 2000, when the lake froze on the 31st."

It should be noted that, going back to when regular lake ice records began, in 1972, Lake Erie has never completely, 100 per cent, frozen over in December. The times it has completely frozen over - where 100 per cent ice coverage was reported for the entire lake surface - this didn't occur until at least January.

The NWS Buffalo forecasters were not referring to 100 per cent ice coverage, however, but instead are looking at how much of the lake is being reported as "ice free".

According to records from NOAA's National Ice Center, Lake Erie was roughly half "ice free" as of December 28, 2000. By their next weekly report, though, on January 4, 2001, every part of the lake had at least some ice coverage, even if it was sparse (such as near the eastern end, in the images below). Overall, though, when NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) calculated the total ice coverage for that time period, it averaged out for the entire lake surface, at 73.2 per cent.

Dec 28, 2000 Great Lakes ice coverage, with around half the lake still "ice free". Credit: NIC

Jan 4, 2001 Great Lakes ice coverage, with all of Lake Erie covered in at least some ice. Credit: NIC

Although there is a week-long gap between those two records, due to the less frequent observations taken at the time, apparently the NWS Buffalo forecasters have records showing that this freeze spread ice to all areas of the lake by at least December 31.

Sources: NOAA GLERL | NWS Buffalo

Watch Below: What is the Polar Vortex? Quick explainer from a meteorologist

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