Great Lakes Frozen By 2016 Polar Vortex? Winter Storm Brings Lake Michigan Waterspouts, But It’s No Snow/Ice Record

About a year ago everyone was awed by the photos of the Great Lakes frozen over with ice. While the 2016 polar vortex has sent some chilly winter storms to the region, they are nothing at all compared to the snow and ice seen in 2014 and 2015. Still, the cold weather is causing some very interesting effects, including Lake Michigan’s waterspouts, which are essentially cold-air wind funnels.

The polar vortex is a large pocket of low pressure and cold air surrounding both the south and north pole. The polar vortex always exists, but it weakens during the summer, and strengthens around winter’s peak. The reason the polar vortex can cause the Great Lakes to freeze over is because a jet stream may send Arctic air blasting down toward Canada and northern states within America.

“This is not confined to the United States,” explained NOAA. “Portions of Europe and Asia also experience cold surges connected to the polar vortex.”

In fact, according to the South China Morning Post, the southern Chinese territories are currently being hit by the other side of the 2016 polar vortex. It is even possible Hong Kong may see some snow.

Back in America, lake-effect snow is being driven onto areas surrounding the eastern Great Lakes, with the National Weather Service reporting “snowfall rates of 3 to 5 inches per hour east of Lake Ontario early Monday afternoon.” The upper regions of Michigan saw as much as 31 inches of snow, although the lake-effect snow is expected to wind down in most areas by late Tuesday night.

The 2016 winter storms may be fairly mild compared to the last two years, but they can still send some Arctic blasts. One stunning example is a video of a car frozen over near Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes and thus the easiest one to completely freeze over.

“I don’t even know if pictures do it justice of just how insane this image is,” explained a WKBW reporter. “It seems like there are several inches of…thick ice around the car.”

But will the Great Lakes freeze over like in previous years around this time frame? So far, it seems unlikely based upon the data from NOAA.

In the last two years, the Great Lakes ice extent coverage was almost record-breaking. From Lake Michigan and Lake Erie in the south to Lake Superior in the north, water temperatures remain between 40 and 50 degrees across all five Great Lakes. In the same time frame during 2015, the water temperature average was colder than 40 degrees. Even during November and December of this winter season there’s about a 13 degree difference from last year, so it’s no surprise that we have not seen the Great Lakes frozen over like before.


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So far, 2016 is cold enough for ice generation, but it seems unlikely February will bring enough winter storms to cause the same effect. As a comparison, The Weather Network compares the 2016 winter season to 2012, “when a mild winter meant that ice coverage had only reached around 3.7 per cent by January 15, and maxed out 12.9 per cent for the year.” At the same time, the current ice growth may resemble 2013, “which was in the 3-4 per cent range in January and then climbed to a total of 38.4 per cent by mid-February.”

Great Lakes Ice Coverage Chart
Graph of annual maximum lake ice coverage, 1973-2015. Credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL)

The combination of warmer waters in the Great Lakes and the icy winds of the air can produce quite a sight. Since the air temperatures are registering in the negatives, the cold air and warm water can lead to the formation of waterspouts like shown in this photo near Lake Michigan.

[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]