Climate shifts affecting Great Lakes ice cover

The mild winter across the Great Lakes is producing below average ice cover once again. As of Sunday, 13.5 percent of the Great Lakes is covered with ice according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


That's well below the historical median of about 30 percent for this week of the year, according to the Canadian Ice Service.

Canadian Ice Service

Feeling the effects

As our climate shifts, many residents around the Great Lakes are feeling the effects of less consistent ice cover in recent years.

Typically, by this time in the winter, the ice is thick enough to support an "ice road" from Bayfield to Madeline Island. This year, though, the ferry will run all winter long, for the second year in a row, and third year in the past six. Dan Kraker | MPR News

MPR News reporter Dan Kraker has this insightful look at how less reliable ice is affecting those who live on Madeline Island.

Open water: Madeline Island watches, worries as winter climate shifts

There ought to be an ice road here. Lake Superior should be frozen solid, and the Island Queen should be snug in dry dock for the winter.

But there's no road this winter, nothing's solid and though it's February, the Island Queen is still working in open water, making the 25-minute trip between Bayfield and the town of La Pointe on Madeline Island eight times a day.

"This ice we're going through right now is just turned up over and over and over again, so it's probably only 2 inches thick, originally," captain Shannon Mager said as she steered the ferry through broken plates of ice.

In most years, the ice is too thick by now for the ferries to plow through. But that's not the norm anymore. This year's mild winter has meant another record low year for ice cover on Lake Superior. For the second year in a row, the Madeline Island ferries plan to run all winter long — the first time that's ever happened.

The sight of the ferries in February offers clear-eyed evidence of climate change in the Upper Midwest. Island residents say they can't rely anymore on the winter ice pack. And that's having a big impact on everyday life.