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Fox News Weather Center

Great Lakes nearly devoid of ice as El Nino-influenced warmth dominates early winter

The El Niño-influenced weather pattern over the past several months has brought above-normal temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast, causing the ice coverage on the Great Lakes to be significantly lower than it has been over the past two winters.

As of Feb. 2, 2016, the total ice coverage on the Great Lakes was less than 6 percent, just a fraction of what it was at the start of February in 2014 and 2015, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL).

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During the past two winters, early intrusions of arctic air paired with the persistence of below-normal temperatures caused ice to develop and to expand across large areas of the lakes by the middle of the winter.

However, the weather pattern during the first half of this winter has been significantly different, favoring temperatures near to above normal across the region. As a result, only a small amount of ice has been able to form on the Great Lakes.

"It was a warm November followed by an incredibly warm December and it has contributed to the lack of ice on the Great Lakes," AccuWeather Meteorologist Todd Miner said.

Miner added that the weather did turn colder in January, allowing ice to form on parts of the lakes finally. However, temperatures still ran near to above normal, preventing a rapid accumulation of ice.

The lack of ice on the Great Lakes has allowed the lake-effect snow season to last later into the winter than it usually does, meaning that areas downwind of the Great Lakes will continue to see chances of heavy snow squalls through February and potentially into March.

"We have a good, solid winter ahead of us, so if we get some shots of cold Arctic air, given the fact that the lakes are open, we have opportunities for some good lake-effect snow," Miner said.

Typically, the opportunities for lake-effect snow season gradually diminish as the winter transpires as arctic air chills the lakes and ice becomes more expansive. In doing so, the comparatively warm water of the lakes needed for heavy lake-effect snow is removed from the equation.

Last winter, Buffalo had received 57 inches of snow by the end of January, most of which accumulating when bands of lake-effect snow set up over the city. This winter, Buffalo has measured less than half of that amount due to the milder weather.

The lack of ice on the Great Lakes this year has benefited industries around the region that rely on shipping to transport good and materials.

"The ice can hurt commerce and has affected the length of the shipping season on the Great Lakes," Miner said. "When Lake Erie is full of ice, they're not going to be sending any ships through there."

Even if there are icebreakers available, sometimes the ice on Lake Erie can be too thick for the ships to navigate through, closing off access to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

Ice coverage was an issue in 2014 when the ice-clogged Great Lakes prevented shipping from reaching the nation's largest steel mill, forcing the factory to shut down.

This year, the shipping season will extend later into the winter due to the late onset of ice. The upcoming shipping season should also benefit, with potential to begin sooner than the past two years due to the lesser extent of the ice.

Despite the ice coverage on the Great Lakes being significantly less than the past two years, it is not unheard of to have such a low amount of ice on the lakes at the start of February.

In 2012, the maximum ice coverage on the lakes failed to reach 13 percent. In 2002, a mild winter prevented ice coverage on the lakes to remain below 10 percent, the lowest maximum ice coverage since detailed records began in 1973.

Additionally, the extent of the ice during the past two winters ranks among the most expansive since the 1970s, according to the GLERL. In 2014, the maximum ice coverage was the second-most expansive in history, falling just shy of the record 94.7 percent reached in 1979.

There is still time for blasts of arctic air to chill the lakes. The greatest ice coverage usually occurs around the end of February or beginning of March. However, it is looking unlikely that the extent of the ice on the Great Lakes will approach the levels that were achieved over the past two winters.