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Environment & Climate Change

Great Lakes temperatures unusually high, posing long-term threats

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
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The Great Lakes are warmer than ever recorded for a November.

The lakes’ temperatures have been higher than the long-term average since the summer and some even longer. Lake Superior for instance has been warmer than average for most of the year.

From 1951 to 2020, the annual average air temperatures have increased by 2.3°F in the U.S. Great Lakes region. Researchers say that climate change influenced by greenhouse gas emissions is to blame. A study by the Environmental Law & Policy Center suggests that, on average, the Great Lakes basin has warmed faster than the rest of the U.S.

Jia Wang is an ice climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. He said that a number of factors contributed to a decrease in ice covering which results in the Great Lakes absorbing more solar radiation. When lakes take in more solar radiation, more warming and evaporation occurs.

Human-caused climate change has been heating up the Great Lakes region for decades. But this year, an occasional global climate pattern called “La Niña” will bring a warmer winter. It’s typically understood that “La Nina” brings colder winters but due to other independent but competing climate patterns, the Great Lakes will be getting a warmer winter.

According to the National Climate Assessment, for decades the Great Lakes’ surface temperatures have been increasing resulting in a decrease in ice covering.

Lake effect snow fall has increased overall since the early 20th century but the increase hasn’t been steady. Common in the Great Lakes region, lake-effect snow fall occurs when below-freezing air passes over a lake’s warmer waters. The air rises forming clouds and producing snow.

“This winter will be a warm winter, a mild winter and less ice cover and that will lead to more lake-effect snow,” Wang said.

In short, there’s going to be a lot of snow this winter.

Higher lake temperatures can increase bacteria levels, enlarge harmful algae blooms and ultimately harm fish, wildlife and in-turn disrupt Michigan’s fishing economy.

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