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Deep freeze means rare rise in Great Lakes water levels

  • Chicago lake michigan.jpg

    December 12, 2013: Ice covers the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. All five of the Great Lakes have had ice covering 92% of the surface which will likely lead to higher water levels into the spring and fall. (REUTERS/John Gress)

  • Great Lakes graphic2.jpg

    A map by NOAA, shows ice coverage on the Great Lakes on February 13, 2014. Varying shades of blue indicate ice concentration levels throughout the region. ((REUTERS/NOAA))

It looks as if there will be at least one positive from the deep freeze the Midwest endured this winter, and sportsmen, farmers, fish and the shipping industry all stand to benefit.

Water levels in the Great Lakes are expected to rise, and it isn't just because of all the melting snow. The ice that nearly covered all five lakes for the first time since 1978 has also trapped water below, preventing the evaporation that has seen the enormous bodies of water slowly shrinking for decades. But even with the estimated rise of 13-15 inches, the levels are still well below historic levels.

“The levels have risen significantly, but the caveat is that they are still a foot below the all-time average high,” Keith Kompoltowicz, watershed hydrology chief for the Detroit district of the Army Corps of Engineers told

“The levels have risen significantly, but the caveat is that they are still a foot below the all-time average high.”

- Keith Kompoltowicz, Army Corps of Engineers

Higher levels are good for the region that depends on the lakes for drinking water, good for fish and also for the shipping industry. The blustery winter season and the fact that there is still ice cover will likely keep lake temperatures cool throughout the summer, which in turn would stall evaporation rates.

Lakes Michigan and Huron could benefit the most as both have been at their lowest levels since 1918, when lake data was first collected. The past two years saw Lake Michigan, in particular, reach record lows which caused economic problems for the shipping industry as they were forced to lighten cargo loads. Both are now seeing the most significant level rise in the region.

Ecologists have ice to thank for the rebound.

“The 40-year average of ice cover for the month of Feburary is 32 percent,” George Leshkevich, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab told “This is the second greatest ice cover on record since 1979.”

Leshkevich added that ice cover levels broke 92 percent as of March 6, and remains well above 80 percent.

“Since the first polar vortex, the ice as just been building and building,” he said.

Leshkevich adds that the ice was one, but not the only, factor in evaporation.

“There was also a lot of snow in the northern basins, so that combined with the ice cover reduced evaporation as well as reduced lake effect snows.”

Higher lake levels could also benefit marinas, since it would mean improved docking areas for boats and tourism could see a boost as sandy beaches would be replenished. Farmers in the region even stand to benefit from the deep freeze as it could stall crops from premature growth that could leave them susceptible to freezing during the earliest stages of the growing season.

However, some in the commercial industry are skeptical about how great the benefit for shipping may be this year.

“It’s possible that it could help [improve shipping], but it’s not guaranteed,” Glen Nekvasil, Vice President of the Lake Carriers’ Association told “There have been many times when NOAA, and whomever else, have said the levels would have been higher and it turned out not to be the case.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych

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