Ask Ellen: Has high water on Lake Michigan slowed ice formation?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — All year we have been reporting about Lake Michigan’s high water levels, and this January is likely to completely smash the old record. That made Victoria Lewis in South Haven wonder, “Could the increase of water levels in the Lake be another reason why ice hasn’t formed as of yet?”

It’s an excellent question. I’m naturally inclined to say no, since ice formation is mostly dependent on air temperature. However, ice concentration is also dependent on surface winds, as windy conditions tend to break up the ice.

One way to look at the question is to look at past years’ water level and ice data and compare them to each other to see if there are any glaring similarities between high water years and low ice concentration.

This year, we are near record for water levels on Lake Michigan. Below is a graph showing lake levels over time. The red line represents the average level.

Lake Michigan’s all-time highest level was 582.35 feet in 1986. It’s all time lowest was 576.02 feet in January of 2013 (following a warm 2012). Those are two reference years we can use while comparing ice data.

Right now, the Great Lakes ice concentration is incredibly low. We are sitting at 6.2% ice for the entire Great Lakes area. Usually this time of year, almost half the Great Lakes are covered in ice.

Here is a graph showing the iciest and least icy years for the Great Lakes:

Lowest Great Lakes concentration years:

  • 1983, 25.5%
  • 1998, 14.3%
  • 2002, 11.9%
  • 2012, 12.9%
  • 2017, 19.4%

Highest Great Lakes concentration years:

  • 1979, 94.7%
  • 1994, 89%
  • 2003, 80.2%
  • 2014, 92.5%
  • 2015, 88.8%
  • 2019, 80.9%

There does not seem to be a correlation between the highest water level years and the least amount of ice. If there was, the time frame around 1986 would have had below-average ice coverage instead of above-average. 2019 would also have likely seen below-average ice concentration, but instead it actually is in the top five iciest years.

If high water levels were connected to low-ice years, then we should also check to see if low-ice years in the past had high water levels. But they do not. In fact, 2012 was one of our lowest lake level years on record.

So after a check of the data, it appears water levels and ice concentration are likely not related.

Wind and air temperature are likely the biggest players. So far, This has been one of the top 10 warmest Januarys on record for the Great Lakes and the 4th wettest & 5th warmest on record for Grand Rapids. This is likely the biggest reason why our waters are still so open.

If you have a question for Ellen, you can email



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