John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The expanding sheet could set a modern record for coverage.
This year, Canada opened the fridge door on America and forgot to shut it. Blasts of arctic air have turned the northern states into ice-crusted wonderlands, a place where it's possible to stroll over Lake Superior and frolic in crystalline caves.
This was not the case at this time in 2013, however. Whereas back then you could swim in all of the Great Lakes – that is, if you were mentally unstable or had just drunk a bottle of schnapps – nowadays there's scarcely a patch of open water to be found. The stark difference in the amount of lake ice is clear in this side-by-side comparison from both Februaries; look in particular at the total surface freezing of Lake Superior and Lake Huron:
The situation has changed slightly since February 16, when the 2014 image was acquired. NOAA's Weather Prediction Center, which put together the comparison, says that another image from yesterday "does show some breaks over western Lake Superior with west winds pushing thicker ice eastward."
This is a major amount of ice. During an average winter, the lakes become 30 to 40 percent covered; this year between 80 and 90 percent are sealed off, reports Accuweather. One Minnesota researcher says Lake Superior is the most frozen he's seen in 20 years. And with the ice expected to spread in the coming weeks as it approaches its typical March maximum, its dug-in persistence could spell an unusually cool summer for those living nearby:
Other than the ice jam worries, the ice coverage on the Great Lakes, specifically on Lake Superior, is mounting concerns for the region's climate.
"With all of this ice, all the sunlight that hits the surface of the lake is going to get bounced back out into space, so it's going to take longer to get warmer this spring and summer," [Large Lakes Observatory researcher Jay] Austin said. "The lake is going to just start warming this year when it will start cooling off for next year."
This could bring a relatively cool year for the communities surrounding the lake.
Needless to say, it must be noted that while this region is experiencing below-normal cold, the science of climate change has not just exploded into splinters. Nine out of 10 of the planet's hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, with some normally cooler places, like Alaska, enduring abnormal warmth.
Image courtesy of the Weather Prediction Center on Facebook