El Nino Winters Mean Extreme Ice On Great Lakes

El Nino Winters Mean Extreme Ice On Great Lakes

GreatLakesIceNov11Winter outlooks vary quite a bit this season from heavy snow to mild and wet.  A lot of this is based off of the strong El Nino in the Pacific. My winter outlook takes into consideration many other factors that can take the Pacific energy and direct it.  But one thing that can’t be ignored is that El Nino does bring warmer air. If anything, the strong flow from west to east can limit the ability of extremely cold arctic air to establish itself for a long period of time. One way to prove that, without looking and questioning local weather station records, is to look at the ice formation on The Great Lakes.

A typical winter will have repeating cold air masses pass over the warmer Great Lakes and produce some locally heavy snow downwind. This is why places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Syracuse are among the top US cities for snowfall.  But later in the winter, the cold air takes the ‘steam’ out of the lakes and they eventually freeze. The last two winters were among the top four most amount of ice formation across the Great Lakes on record. 2013 had the Polar Vortex, but substantial cold air last winter held strong all on its own.

Note: When ice increases on the Great Lakes, the Lake Effect snow showers decrease or shut down as the moisture supply is affected.

Check out the winter ice coverage in this chart below.  Notice the particularly low ice years. Can you guess what global weather pattern stood out then? Read on below.



Strong El Nino

This record keeping only began in 1973, so it is a relatively small dataset. But what stands out in this chart on the bottom or low ice years, is the correlation to strong El Nino.  Key word on ‘strong’ as explained when I compared El Nino, Snow, and the Baltimore Orioles post season success. Some of the lowest ice coverage measurements were then:

  • 1983 = 18.1% ice
  • 1998 = 11.5% ice


But contrast that to another strong El Nino the first year of measurements.

  • 1973 = 59% ice (above normal)

I should also point out that 2002-2003 was a moderate El Nino and

  • 2002 = 9.5% (lowest ice coverage on record)
  • 2003 = 74.5% (20 % above average)

If it looks like the data is all over the place, you’ve got my point.  Extreme weather is likely, but could be on the low or high end. While looking at all elements and signals, the one clear thing that jumps out is once again all or nothing.  That was what I recently wrote about. A strong El Nino event will likely give us a lot or a little bit of snow in Baltimore, and as seen also minimal cold or extensive sustained cold outbreaks to build up ice on the Great Lakes. There really isn’t much middle ground.

It should be noted that warm or mild winters can produce some big snowstorms. 1999-2000 in Baltimore is a great example. We only had three storms in a 10 day period, which brought us a near seasonal average. It was just combined mostly in a week an a half.

*I will have my winter outlook within a week of this post.  Still crunching the final numbers. As I keep pointing out the extreme winter analogs, there is one caveat to consider with snowfall. WE could get a lot of winter storms with more ice that would cut down on snow accumulation for the season.  It will be an active winter, but the storm track/pattern will make or break if it.


Related Winter and El Nino Stories:

Strong El Nino Brings All Or Nothing Snow in Winter

El Nino Snow And The Baltimore Orioles

El Nino 2015 Is Too Big To Fail

El Nino growing stronger and could last into winter 2016

El Nino 2015 Compared to 1997 By NOAA: Strongest On Record?


Chris Farley- The Other El Nino

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