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Published: Monday, 2/4/2008

Lack of 'good ice' in winter stresses area's water levels

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The recent snowfall is likely to be a memory soon, with warmer temperatures and more rain expected this week.

A lot of people - except those hoping to go skiing, sledding, skating, or ice fishing - are probably OK with leaving their parkas behind and enjoying balmy weather again.

But the Great Lakes, the region's greatest natural resource and the backbone of its economy, take a beating from these on-again, off-again winters.

They will be the norm instead of the exception if predictions about global warming come true, according to Jeff Reutter, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ohio Sea Grant program and the leader of Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie's Gibraltar Island, near Put-in-Bay.

Even if this had been a normal winter, the lakes would be under stress. The largest one, Lake Superior - which holds more water than the other four combined and supplies them with much of their water - last year was the lowest it has been since its low-water record was set in 1926.

Lakes Michigan and Huron - hydrologically viewed as one lake that feeds Lake Erie - approached their low-water mark set in 1964, according to NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory records, which date to 1860.

Eighty percent of Lake Erie's water comes down the Detroit River from Lake St. Clair and those three upper Great Lakes.

But the story doesn't end there. Although Lake Erie actually only receded to its historic average in 2007, scientists believe it's headed for trouble if it doesn't get a lot more ice soon.

Many people believe the lakes evaporate more in the summer. They don't.

Winter is the cruelest time, with zigzagging temperatures and high winds causing the most problems.

Evaporation is greatest during the winter because of the greater difference between air and water temperatures then, Cynthia Sellinger, deputy director of NOAA's Great Lakes Laboratory, said.

Ice is the knight in shining armor as it seals the lakes, halting evaporation.

Stiff winds, such as last week's gales that gusted to 56 mph on land, and potentially higher over the lake, keep the water from freezing.

Besides generating waves, the winds churn the lake's water, allowing warmer water below the lake's surface to rise to the top. Mud in shallow areas, such as Lake Erie's western basin, is stirred up and becomes suspended in the water. The dirt particles prevent good, thick ice from forming.

Jia Wang, a NOAA ice climatologist, said Lake Erie's ability to hold water this winter "will depend on the ice cover."

"As long as there's open water, the water will receive heat from the atmosphere and solar radiation," he said.

The only real freezing so far is near the Lake Erie Islands, the first area where ice normally forms. The amount out there now would have been formed by mid-December several years ago.

"But is it good enough? The answer is no," Bud Gehring, a South Bass Island fishing guide, said.

He and another South Bass guide, John Hageman, said the ice is so spotty they need to wait before taking people out on it.

"It's really precarious now," Mr. Hageman said.

Mr. Gehring, who has been fishing Lake Erie since the 1960s, said he wouldn't be surprised if this winter's ice fishing is a bust.

To the novice, all ice is the same. But not to savvy fishermen.

Mr. Hageman said that although there's now eight inches of ice near the islands - generally thought of as the minimum thickness for safety - that doesn't mean it's stable.

Eight inches in mid-January is different than eight inches of ice in mid-March. When there's stronger sunlight in March, it penetrates the ice and causes a "honeycomb" effect, weakening the ice to the vertical consistency of "Swiss cheese," Mr. Hageman said.

"That's why nobody's going to say absolutely that eight inches will hold you," he said.

Mr. Gehring said anything with mud particles in it isn't reliable.

"That's bad ice," he said. "That's punk ice. You don't want that."

Mr. Hageman said there was limited ice fishing on Lake Erie in 2002, 2004, and 2006 because of the lack of good, thick ice.

Last year, ice fishing was great - but only for a brief time.

Fishermen got out onto the lake in mid-February. They found fish biting but had to get off the lake, as they normally do, by mid-March, Mr. Hageman said.

So they had a month. Years ago, they would have had nearly three months, he said.

"We're really not in normal times," Ms. Sellinger said.

Although a new report she co-authored with other researchers from NOAA and Duke University starts off by acknowledging that Great Lakes water levels have fluctuated over thousands of years, it says lower water levels "are consistent with many global climate change scenarios."

It also raises questions about the current evaporation rate.

Lake levels have gone in 30-year cycles since 1860, according to NOAA's records.

But the report, a peer-reviewed paper that made the Jan. 15 cover of Environmental Science & Technology, said it's possible the "low levels may be sustained" by global warming.

Global warming could mean more hurricanes. Those storms' tail ends often bring heavy rain to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, but not the upper trio of Great Lakes. That means some of global warming's effects on Erie and Ontario could be "masked," Ms. Sellinger said.

Anything from the shipping industry to lakefront property could be affected by a warmer climate and accelerated evaporation rate.

So could the lake's biology.

Jeff Tyson, a supervisor for the state's Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit in Sandusky, said the best hatches of walleye and yellow perch - the lake's most prized sportfish - come after winters with good ice cover.

Both are cool-water species. They thrive when competitors, such as white perch and gizzard shad, both exotic to Lake Erie and at the northern edge of their range, get displaced or killed off by the cold.

Even a slightly warmer planet will alter the lake's biology, Mr. Tyson said.

Ice may not vanish. But years of sporadic thickness still could cause "extreme variability," he said.

That could include more algae, according to Mr. Reutter.

Phosphorus runoffs from farms into the Maumee River, Lake Erie's largest tributary, have been on the rise since 1997, reversing a 25-year decline.

Phosphorus is a common farm fertilizer, but it helps algae grow. A warmer climate could lead to more rain and phosphorus runoff in the wintertime, Mr. Reutter said.

On-again, off-again winters have an upside and downside for people who rely on the lake.

"You've never been able to count on the ice 100 percent. You're happy if you get it, but you don't count on it," said D.J. Parker, owner of the Niagara Guest House in Put-in-Bay.

He said he remembers when, years ago, Lake Erie's ice was so thick that island residents drove their automobiles to and from the mainland.

Old Christmas trees were lined up in a row to make the safest path. Expired license plates were lined up next to them, so that headlights would reflect off them during night trips.

Few people dare put their automobiles on the ice now. Most lake-based traveling - what little there is now in the dead of winter - is done with airboats, hovercraft, and snowmobiles.

The tradition of lining up Christmas trees and license plates is "becoming more of a lost art now," Mr. Parker said.

Island residents also have become accustomed to a longer ferry-service season.

Miller Boat Line, for example, continued its fall service through Jan. 8. It used to stop in late November.

"In the past few years, we have been doing later service," said Laurie Miller, office manager.

Tom Griffing, president of Griffing Flying Service in Sandusky, said extended ferry service cuts into his aviation business.

"When they operate, people stop flying," he said. "It's been very tough on our business."

He laughed at the notion of people enjoying balmy winters.

"We're praying for cold weather," Mr. Griffing said. "People say 'It's so nice out there.' No, it's not nice. We need it to be normal temperatures or below."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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