The Ups and Downs of Unfrozen Lake Superior

Experts share different effects of the lake's low ice cover, while some Northlanders miss the ice.

DULUTH, Minn.- The Northland has gone through an unseasonably warm winter, eliminating the chance for much ice to form on the surface of Lake Superior.

“I was excited for the ice build up and it’s just not coming yet,” Lindsey Ruhnke said.

Lapping waves is a surprising sound to hear by the lake at the beginning of February. “I think this is pretty crazy. It looks like April out there on the Lake,” said Ruhnke.

But then again, temperatures lately have been surprising as well.

“We had warmer than average temperatures for the month of January,” said Josh Sandstrom, Meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “We’ve been running about 6 degrees above average for the month and last year we were running well below average with, we had some record breaking low temperatures.”

This winter’s unusually warm temperatures have Lake Superior only around 5% covered with ice. According to Sandstrom, this lack of ice could have other wintry effects.

“When you have less ice cover over Lake Superior you have more evaporation of the water and that tends to contribute to more Lake Effect snow. So especially areas of the South shore that typically experience it.”

It’s a stark difference from last year when ice shards stacked up from the nearly frozen over surface.

“Previous years, last year we had some companies that couldn’t breakout,” said Ron Williams.

More open water has been a great benefit to cargo ships sailing the lake.

“They’ve had some record loads in the past two years,” Williams, Port Meteorological Officer, said. “With the larger lake levels we’re, we should be equaling that or surpassing it.”

“That’s a lot of product to move and real good for resources, good for the local economy as well.”

But ships can’t totally escape the ice that forms close to shore. “We have a lot of choke points as well,” he said. “So we might have low ice coverage but if, for instance the Whitefish Bay or there’s also in Canada Thunder Bay.”

These areas eat up time made up on the open water. “If we have ice in those areas it’s tough to be able to get the ships in and out of those ports.”

But all in all, an unfrozen lake is good news for the shipping business, ahead of the Soo Locks opening later in March.

“We’re looking pretty good,” Williams said. “So knock on wood we’ll keep that ice low.”

Despite the lack of ice, Lake Superior still makes for a pretty neat shot.

“To be able to grab that reflection of the lighthouse is extra special in February,” said Ruhnke. Photographers like her snap some great pictures of the tranquil water.

“As a photographer when you don’t have the ice pack and the blue ice buildup you can get really exciting reflections when it’s so calm out here like it is today on this beautiful day.”

But winter’s still young, so that water may not be so open for long.

“We’ve still got some time to build some ice, we’ve got a couple of cold days here that are coming up at the end of the week,” Williams said.

Meaning there’s still time to capture that ice image of a Northland winter at its finest.

“I love winter,” said Ruhnke. “Winter gives us something special to photograph, and so we’re missing out on those opportunities.”

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