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Great Lakes Finally Ice-Free After Record Ice Longevity

With summer just around the corner, for the first time in seven months the Great Lakes are officially free of ice.

While only weeks ago, chunks of ice could be seen floating on the lakes as residents and visitors flocked to the waters for Memorial Day, as of June 6, the lakes were classified as ice-free.

"This year is the longest we've seen ice on Lake Superior in our 40 years of records," Physical Scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration George Leshkevich said.

Following one of the coldest winter's on record for the region with temperatures from Jan. 1 to April 1 averaging seven degrees below normal, the Great Lakes hit their second highest ice coverage on record, reaching 92.19 percent on March 6, 2014.

Moving into the spring season, more than one-third or 38 percent, of the Great Lakes remained covered in ice in mid-April, causing major problems for the steel industry as the business relied on the waterways for shipping and transporting goods and materials.

"There are no years in the last 30 years that are even close to that, so it's very unusual this late in the season to have that much ice coverage," Lead Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok said.

The last time the ice coverage on the lakes lasted nearly this long was in 2003, when the last of the ice cleared on May 29, according to Leshkevich.

However, moving farther into the spring season, temperatures began to increase in May, aiding in diminishing the ice coverage on the lakes.

"The air temperature, currents of the water and the water temperatures all play apart in melting the ice," Public Affairs Specialist for the 9th Coast Guard District in Cleveland, Levi Read said.

Since May 1, average temperatures in the Ironwood, Michigan, region have trended slightly above normal with daytime highs in the low 70s and overnight lows in the low 50s.

Aside from rising temperatures across the area, the Coast Guard has been working hard since the beginning of December to break up the ice on the lakes, according to Read.

About a month longer than normal, the service finished ice breaking in the middle of May, Read stated.

Despite the increase in temperatures for the areas surrounding the lakes, the longevity of the cold and the extent of the ice coverage so late into the spring will hinder water temperature recovery.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Scott Gendron of Coast Guard Air Station Detroit drills into frozen Lake Erie to gather ice depth measurements in support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on March 5, 2014. (Photo/ U.S. Coast Guard, Photographer Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Borsuck)

Currently, the warmest of the lakes, Lake Erie is averaging daily temperatures between 60 and 65 F but the coldest lake has temperatures in the 40s.

"The water is still very, very cold and it's very dangerous for people to go out and get in it," Read said. "The Coast Guard considers anything below 72 F a cold water rescue."

Swimming in water below 70F can induce a life-threatening health condition known as immersion hypothermia. As water takes heat away from the body almost 25 times faster than air, this condition develops much more quickly than standard hypothermia.

With lake temperatures still lagging as the official start to summer approaches, the prolonged water temperature recovery may have a huge impact on the summer weather for the region including some of the United State's major cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo, New York.

"It's going to affect the overall atmosphere around the region," Pastelok said. "It may be a bit on the cooler side."

In addition to cooler weather for the Great Lakes area, slow-recovering lake temperatures could lead to less severe weather near the lakes and more widespread fog.

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