Lake Erie today is nearly fully encapsulated in ice.
Subfreezing temperatures straight on through next week should finish the job.
Most Buffalo Niagara residents know that means the lake-effect snow machine will grind to a halt.
But there’s another potential benefit: more sunshine.
Vitamin D was plentiful Wednesday across the region – if you could brave the single-digit temperatures. Days like Wednesday, absent any significant weather-making systems, could continue so long as Lake Erie stays frozen, forecasters say.
That’s because warmer, open waters of Lake Erie during winter months promote evaporation. The moisture rises, creating all those steely-gray, snow-laden, lake-effect clouds that block the sun, oftentimes quickly turning our landscape a deep white.
“It’s like putting a lid on a pot,” said Jim Mitchell, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, of the ice cover on lake-effect clouds and snow. “It cuts it right off completely. You don’t have the water there for the moisture source. It’s basically acting like dry land.”
Lake-effect cloud cover during November, December and usually January is what can make the sky seem like never-ending gray. Freezing out that evaporation can clear those skies above us.
As of Wednesday, the lake was 95.1 percent covered with ice. Only a very small area of the lake along the Canadian shoreline just east of Long Point showed more than 10 percent open water, according to ice concentration maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Daytime highs will remain below freezing through at least Wednesday, according to forecasts that also show the mercury dipping into the single digits or below zero for four of the next five nights. That should be enough to freeze over the remaining areas, Mitchell projected.
If that happens, it would be the most – and earliest – the lake has frozen over in recent years. The largest ice concentrations on Lake Erie over the last five years have occurred in early February – 95.8 percent on Feb. 1, 2011 and 95.5 percent on Feb. 5, 2009.
“We’ve had an early ice cover this year,” said George Leshkevich a research scientist at the Great Lakes laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It’s earlier than normal. Lake Erie usually sees its maximum ice in early February to mid-February.
“It’s getting near that point right now.”
Leshkevich was a little less bullish on prognosticating more sunny days for Buffalo Niagara. The laboratory doesn’t keep statistics to back up such a theory.
“Certainly, Lake Erie can generate low cloud cover, but then you can get clouds coming in also from the west and northwest,” said Leshkevich. “If the lake is ice-covered, it will certainly cut down on evaporation and lake-effect snow.”
But just because there may be more clear skies with an iced-over Lake Erie, it doesn’t necessarily translate into warmth.
Much to the contrary, especially at night when cloud cover often acts as a form of insulation from the most bitter cold air.
“It’s like a blanket,” Mitchell said of the clouds.
When that “blanket” is removed, there’s nothing keeping that frigid air from nipping your nose, fingers and toes.
A lot of factors have combined this season to produce the cold winter, most notably repeated airflows from the polar regions. It is what has led to the quick freezing of Lake Erie.
Mother Nature’s “about-face” this 2013-14 winter seems to be the latest snub for the annual Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament, which is slated to be held Feb. 21-22 on refrigerated ice rinks at a new location: 333 Ganson St.
The tournament had been historically held on the frozen Erie Basin Marina, but over the last few years, the elements have proven less than cooperative.
Last year, middling ice cover forced the tournament onto makeshift refrigerated rinks in the parking lots there. The warm winter two years ago forced organizers to quickly shift it to a “street hockey” event, but about half the teams pulled out, heading for real-life ice rinks in places like Minnesota.
There’s plenty of ice out in the marina this year, so there’s a good chance the tournament could have been played there.
And, it’s not just Lake Erie that’s getting the chill this winter. Across the Great Lakes, waters are turning to ice.
As of Wednesday, Lake Huron was 72 percent ice-covered, Superior is nearly 58 percent and Michigan and Ontario were showing about 29 and 33 percent, respectively. Both lakes Michigan and Ontario are more southerly and deep – more than 800 feet in places.
The highest Great Lakes ice cover occurred in a frosty 1979 when 94.7 percent of the lake water was iced over. Laboratory figures show the lowest occurred in 2002 when only 9.5 percent was covered.
The 2014 forecast by the laboratory – that the lakes will eventually be up to 62 percent ice covered regionwide – would be the third-highest since 1996. Last year only about 38 percent was covered.
“We’re well on our way,” Leshkevich said.