Ice has covered more of the Great Lakes and stayed longer than usual this year, disrupting the start of the maritime shipping season. Just last week, the first ocean-going vessel to reach Duluth, Minnesota, at the far western end of the Great Lakes system was delayed for 12 hours due to heavy ice conditions. It took the U.S. Coast Guard a record five months to break up the ice, a task that was completed on May 15, according to the Detroit Free Press.
But the ice still has to melt, and even when it does, in the spring rains and warmer conditions, its lingering could lead to an especially chilly summer. Luckily, at this point there has been a minimal effect on tribes, although environmental experts said it is slowing activity for the commercial fisheries.
“For Lake Superior, the late ice is primarily an issue for shipping and for commercial fishing boats,” said Bill Mattes, Great Lakes fisheries section leader for the Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission that represents 11 Ojibwe tribes. “Fishermen have been hard pressed to get out on the lake to capture fish for the markets.”
The wildlife are even less affected, he surmised.
“For the fish of Lake Superior, I suspect this late ice is not much of an issue,” Mattes said. “Lake Superior has never warmed up too quickly in the spring, and just below the ice, the temperatures are likely much as they’ve always been—33 degrees. It may affect recruitment of young fish this year if plankton blooms [the food for young fish] arrive late, but that we won’t know for many months.”
Still, this has been an unusually long year for ice on all of the Great Lakes. As late as May 9, the Canadian Ice Services showed at least patches of dense ice remaining on three of the five Great Lakes. In early March, 92 percent of the 90,000-plus square miles covered by the five lakes was still ice-sheathed, the highest area recorded since a 1979 record of 95 percent. This put the winter of 2013-14 into second place for maximum ice cover, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
On Lake Superior, the most northern and western of the lakes, the ice has been in place about six weeks longer than average. Peak ice cover for the winter was greater than 90 percent, more than double the normal average of about 40 percent.
Additional ice coverage and cold, of course, are not necessarily bad for the lakes. In the case of Lake Superior, which has hit some record low water levels in recent years, winter ice cover reduces evaporation, which causes considerable water loss across its 31,700 square miles.
The ice also can help some fish species.
“In the shallow waters where whitefish spawn, ice cover protects their eggs from destructive wind and wave action,” reported NOAA. “Ice cover with little or no snow cover allows light penetration at the surface to promote algae growth. At the base of the food web, algae support living organisms in the lakes, including valuable commercial and sportfish species.”
The late ice on the inland lakes, however, has slowed egg harvest for walleye, according to some tribal fisheries.
“They might spawn under the ice, meaning that we wouldn’t be able to get our nets out in the water,” said Larry Wawronowicz, natural resources director for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Some ice damage has been reported to shoreline properties on the Great Lakes and some inland lakes. In early May, ice crashed ashore on Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota, in walls of frozen water that menaced homes and a resort.
Most people of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, however, are well familiar with the moods of their lake and have adapted to it, said Susan Klapel, the band’s newly appointed commissioner of natural resources and the environment. The fish harvest will take place as the season allows, she said.
“We’ve been around the lake long enough to know, A, you don’t put your house right by the lake and, B, the lake will throw some things at you,” she said. “This is what the lake does, and we just adjust.”