For more than two months, Mother Nature has stockpiled ice throughout the Great Lakes, with relentless arctic air giving it little opportunity to melt.
The bill for that weather pattern is about to come due — perhaps as soon as next week — as temperatures rise above freezing and cause the ice that has covered the region’s lakes and rivers to start shifting. In a normal year, thawing of the ice pack can cause minor inconveniences.
But this is no normal year. On Thursday, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated ice covered 88.4 percent of the Great Lakes and was approaching the all-time record of 95 percent set in 1979.
And when that much ice begins to melt, it can result in major problems for homeowners along waterways, shipping companies and the U.S. Coast Guard.
As ice breaks up, it can collect at bends in waterways like the St. Clair and St. Marys rivers, as well as narrower stretches like the Rouge and Huron rivers, forming jams. For freighters, it can mean impassible routes in places like Algonac and Harsens Island.
For those who don’t live near water, it can be hard to imagine the concerns Randy Swartz has about ice melting. In past years, he has watched as rising temperatures and water pushed ice over the seawall and up onto his property in a slow march toward his home near Bay City.
“The weirdest thing is that it just doesn’t stop,” said the 55-year-old, who moved to his home on Killarney Beach Road a decade ago. “You hear it — there’s a tinkling noise that’s a little bit like glass breaking.”
About three years ago, the ice came up onto land with such force that residents had to move equipment and makeshift structures off beach areas. Swartz’s personal watercraft hoist was dented by the ice — and he considers himself lucky.
“There were some people who had the ice actually pile up and push into the homes,” he said.
In some cases, ice accumulation is considered a good thing. For the past two weeks, an ice bridge has formed in Lake Superior, connecting Isle Royale National Park and the mainland in Minnesota and Ontario. That creates a possibility of new wolves reaching the island population, which researchers have seen dwindle in recent years. So far, there is no indication of wolves moving on or off the island.
For the shipping industry, the pain of this abnormally wintry weather has already been felt. High ice concentrations forced shipment cancellations and reduced cargo loads through December and into January, when the season typically shuts down.
Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Ohio-based Lake Carriers Association, reported iron ore shipments on the lakes fell 21 percent in December from the previous year. In January, those shipments were down 37 percent from the previous year.
Larger problems loom for shippers, depending on how the weather changes toward spring.
“A scenario that would not be good for us right now is if we have an abrupt warmup accompanied by rain,” said Brandon Hoving, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids. “That would help to loosen up the ice and start to break it up a bit, but it could lead to jams. And when you have total blockage across a river, then you have real problems.
“Moving water heading in to the ice starts to hit the jam and back up. It has nowhere to go but sideways and up out of the river.”
Such flooding can cause costly property damage for homeowners. But the jams themselves put an even great burden on the U.S. Coast Guard, which is charged with keeping waterways clear to allow passage.
Both U.S. and Canadian coast guards coordinate efforts with the shipping industry, making sure ice breakers are in the areas of the Great Lakes where they are most needed.
Last week, during a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee on border and maritime security, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, expressed her concerns for the Great Lakes region.
“I think this spring we have the potential of having probably some of the biggest ice jams that have ever happened there,” she said while questioning U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp Jr. about readiness.
“This winter is an anomaly and it will really test our resources,” Papp said. “But I think we are well-prepared for it.”