Vanishing ice and snow: record warm winter wreaks havoc across US midwest

<span>In January, 20 people were rescued here, outside Port Clinton, Ohio, after the ice they were standing on cracked and broke away from the shore.</span><span>Photograph: Stephen Starr</span>
In January, 20 people were rescued here, outside Port Clinton, Ohio, after the ice they were standing on cracked and broke away from the shore.Photograph: Stephen Starr

As a child in the 1990s, Joseph Kuzma remembers how he and his father would – around this time of year – drive their truck out on to Lake Erie and set up a mini camp right on the ice.

“We’d stay out there all weekend in an ice shanty. Catch fish, cook it and sleep in bunks on the ice,” he said. He also recalled sitting next to his brother when he drove a dump truck from the nearby island of Put-In-Bay to the mainland atop the lake ice, remarking: “We would have 6in to 8in of ice.”

Back then, winters on Lake Erie’s western shores were filled with the buzzing of snowmobiles and airboats as ice fishers took to the frozen lake in the hope of catching prized walleye and perch.

But in recent days, there’s been a very different sound in Port Clinton, Ohio: waves lapping against the pier rocks. That’s because the ice is nearly nonexistent.

While ice cover across the Great Lakes – a network of five freshwater lakes about the size of the United Kingdom – has been declining since the early 1970s, this year it’s likely to reach an unprecedented low.

By mid-February, ice cover historically averages about 40%. This year it was about 4%. Even before the official end of winter on 19 March, three normally frigid cities – Grand Forks, North Dakota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota – have already recorded their warmest winter on record this year. Scientists say warming temperatures are a result of human-made climate change and are expected to continue rising for decades to come.

This winter’s mild temperatures have played havoc across the midwest, wrecking plans and disrupting local economies.

In Minnesota, organizers of the Wayzata Chilly Open – an annual ice golfing tournament – were “heartbroken” to have to cancel their event in January after up to 6in of water lay on top of ice on Lake Minnetonka. The event since 1984 had annually attracted about 2,000 “golfers” to the area, serving as an important economic boost.

North America’s biggest cross-country ski race, the American Birkebeiner, contributes about $20m to the north-western Wisconsin region each year. This year it has been forced to run on an altered course due to a lack of natural snow.

“Last year, we had record amounts of snow and this year we’re at record low snow,” said Natalie Chin, climate and tourism outreach specialist at the Wisconsin Sea Grant program in Superior, Wisconsin. “So, it’s a pretty stark contrast. There’s barely any snow on the ground. It’s unseasonably warm.

“People have been saying that the birding isn’t great, possibly because there is food everywhere, so the birds are not concentrating in the normal areas.”

Major events aside, residents in several large midwestern cities have seen their local ice rinks close early for the season due to the warm weather. These winter activities serve as important avenues for getting outdoors and easing the mental health concerns of many residents during the dark, cold months.

For farmers, a reduced snow and ice pack in the upper midwest means moisture that in the past replenished fields and soil until as late as April is disappearing months earlier. The change could foster drought conditions during the crucial planting season.

A report published in January found that the number of -35F (-37.2C) readings in northern Minnesota have fallen by up to 90%. Low temperatures play a key role in weed and pest control.

For Indigenous communities, warmer winters could mark the end for traditions that go back thousands of years.

“Wintertime activities are an essential part of avoiding cabin fever,” said Austin Lowes, chairman of the Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.

Ice fishing, a maple syrup collecting camp and a major traditional Anishinaabe competition for snow snaking were among the events that the tribe canceled due to the winter’s mild temperatures.

“We use these outdoor activities to connect with our families through outside adventures, connect to our community members, and to get healthy exercise,” Lowes said. “The ability to pass important lessons of how to live with nature, respect it and learn from it down to our youth is rooted in outdoor participation in all seasons, including winter.”

Back in Port Clinton, locals still talk about how 20 people had to be rescued by helicopter and airboat from Lake Erie in January after an ice floe they were standing on cracked and was pushed offshore by the wind.

Along the quaint town’s waterfront, that ice has since disappeared. Divers, mallards and Canada geese recently milled around the water’s edge while a flock of gulls relaxed on a tiny, half-submerged ice floe.

In winters past, it would be among the first areas to ice over because it is among the most sheltered and shallow points on any of the Great Lakes.

Locals say that the changing weather isn’t confined to winter months. Kuzma, who runs a security company in Port Clinton, recalls three tornado warnings were issued locally last year. Normally there might be one – or none, he said.

“In January, we went through a week and a half of low 20s, then it was 50 degrees,” he said. “It’s been a weird weather pattern here the past few years.”