The Great Lakes depend on ice. Last winter, they barely froze.

The region comes alive during winter. But both culture and the economy suffer when the cold doesn’t come.

Photograph by Amy Sacka
Read Caption

JANUARY 8, 2020. LAKE ERIE. With its iceless water stretching into the distance on a January day, Lake Erie’s Presque Isle State Park exemplifies the region’s warming winters.

Photograph by Amy Sacka
A version of this story appears in the September 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It’s still dark and well below freezing when Kristie Leavitt pulls to a stop and turns off the ATV’s rumbling motor. For a moment, there’s no sound but the faint whisper of wind sweeping over the ice. The navy blue sky begins to lighten. The cold air burns in her lungs.

View Images

FEBRUARY 8, 2020. LAKE HURON. In Oscoda, Michigan, Elena Mackenzie studies Lake Huron from one of her vacation rental cottages. Thick slabs of ice around the lake usually protect the shore from storms. But last winter was warm, and waves eroded the coastal property, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

Bundled in a hot-pink coat that matches her fishing hut and gear, Leavitt hops down from the driver’s seat onto the 18-inch-thick ice that covers this corner of Munuscong Lake, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her boots crunch into a thin layer of snow as she begins the ritual of preparing for one of her favorite activities: ice fishing.

Leavitt is among the nearly two million ice anglers in the United States who look forward all year to the chill of winter. Like many others in the Great Lakes region, she also relies on the cold for a living. She helps manage her family’s tourist cabins and bait shop on the edge of the lake, and the businesses make most of their money during the ice fishing and snowmobiling season.

View Images

DECEMBER 27, 2019. LAKE SUPERIOR. Robin Saunders, co-owner of Saunders Sunrise Cabins, sits in the only occupied cabin on her property in Paradise, Michigan, near Lake Superior. The six cabins had been booked for this day by snowmobilers. But they all canceled because there was not enough snow. “Snowmobiling supports our livelihood,” says Saunders. “This is what keeps us in business; 90 percent of our business in winter is snowmobilers, and the rest are people who want to see the ice.”

 

But what Leavitt was doing that February day was a rare occurrence last winter across the Great Lakes. The long-term average for ice coverage on all five lakes—Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron, and Ontario—is 54 percent. Last winter, ice covered only 19.5 percent of the lakes’ surfaces—a near-record low.

Some lakes in the region didn’t freeze at all. Others saw only faint traces of ice around their edges, or froze briefly. The weekend before Leavitt’s outing, temperatures in the region shot up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and ice anglers slogged through slush in T-shirts.

One overly warm season isn’t necessarily a harbinger of the inevitable. But increasingly, scientists can pick out patterns in the scattershot records of change from across the Great Lakes, and those patterns are pointing toward a sobering conclusion: The 2019-2020 winter, with its faint traces of ice, is likely just a taste of the future.

View Images

DECEMBER 31, 2019. LAKE SUPERIOR. A surfer catches a wave on an ice-free Lake Superior outside of Duluth, Minnesota, on the last day of 2019. The lake had one of its least ice covered years ever, with just about 20 percent cover by the end of February. Lake Superior is the second fastest warming lake in the world; its water is warming up more quickly than the air around it.

A history defined by the climate

The Great Lakes account for about 20 percent of the freshwater on Earth’s surface. For perspective: That amount could cover the entire contiguous United States in nearly 10 feet of water.

The lakes’ geographical footprint is also hard to fathom. Their combined surfaces span more than 94,000 square miles, about the size of the United Kingdom. The combined measurement of the coasts of the five lakes is thousands of miles longer than either the Pacific or Atlantic coastline of the contiguous U.S.

The presence of all that water was shaped by natural changes in Earth’s climate through time. But the lakes now face unprecedented change—and this time, humans are behind it.

View Images

DECEMBER 31, 2019. LAKE SUPERIOR. Surfer Andrew Peterson stands near a surfing spot outside of Duluth, Minnesota. Several surfers ride the ice-free waves of Lake Superior behind him. There are complicated factors at play controlling the ice on the lake. Sometimes ice forms but doesn’t stick around.

“There was ice here in Duluth, and then it blew out,” he says. “We didn’t think we were going to be able to get out on the water for another day of surfing, but we did.”

In the earliest days of December, the ice looked like it was on track for a “normal” year. But conditions changed—and never recovered.

View Images

DECEMBER 28, 2019. LAKE SUPERIOR. Part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had more freezing days than usual in 2019-2020, but there still wasn’t much ice on the lake. Some areas can have normal-feeling winters even as the surrounding region does not.

The planet has warmed by an average of nearly two degrees Fahrenheit (one degree Celsius) since the 1880s. The Great Lakes region is on a par with this global trend: Within the basin, air temperatures have risen by an average of 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit compared with the first 60 years of the 1900s. And much of that warming has been concentrated in the winter months, nudging the ice ever closer to its tipping point.

“Lake ice is an amazing indicator of climate,” says Sapna Sharma, a lake ecologist at York University in Toronto. It’s “a clear indication of climate change—and people have recorded it, in some cases, for centuries.”

View Images

JANUARY 6, 2020. LAKE ERIE. Near Cleveland, Ohio, Gracie Ezell, 13, walks along the banks of Lake Erie—in shorts. She says it’s not nearly cold enough to put on long pants. Within her lifetime, warmer winters will likely be more common. Scientists predict that by 2050, the minimum temperature will stay above freezing for 21 to 25 more days a year in the Great Lakes basin.

In Japan, priests at a Shinto temple have kept an almost 600-year record of when their lake freezes all the way across. Natural climate cycles emerge from that record—dwarfed in recent decades by the human-caused warming that has gripped the planet. Merchants who used Finland’s Tornio River for trade tracked the date the ice broke up each year from 1693 onward.

In Lake Superior, shipping companies have kept records of ice formation and breakup since 1857. The records show cold years with long stretches of early ice, warm years with less. But overall they are a clear signal of human-caused warming since the industrial revolution.

“What’s happening in the Great Lakes region is a small part of a bigger story,” says Lesley Knoll. A lake expert at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station, she studies people’s cultural relationships with frozen lakes.

A threat to idyllic winter rituals

For Leavitt, 38, the ice has always been a place to bring her life into focus.

When her family would drive from downstate Michigan to visit her grandparents, who owned the lakeside camp at the time, Leavitt would layer on warm clothes, collect a cooler of minnows from the bait shop, and walk out onto the ice as far as she could. She’d crank her hand-powered auger, cut a channel through the thick ice, and open a portal to the quiet underwater world.

The old-timer at the bait shop had handed her a rod—a scant three feet long, designed for ice fishing—off the wall the first time she’d gone in there. He showed her how to tie a lure, and how to tip the rod up and down to make the lure and minnow glitter in the water’s depths. That first rod hangs on the wall of her shanty to this day.

Back then, when she was just a kid, it was a simple affair. She’d bring what little equipment she had out to the ice, perch on an overturned five-gallon bucket, and sit there for hours, tipping the nose of the rod up and down like a conductor’s baton, calling to the symphony of fish below. She didn’t catch much. But the feel of it—the clouds skidding overhead, the water changing colors below her feet, the wind swishing past—got locked into her brain as the essence of winter.

View Images

JANUARY 26, 2020. LAKE ONTARIO. Alex Whitlock heads out to surf on Lake Ontario. Usually by this date, about 13 percent of the lake is covered in ice. But this year only 2 percent was frozen. Ontario is losing its consistent ice along the shore, and its water temperatures in the summer are creeping up.

Leavitt isn’t alone. Ice provides crucial things to everyone who goes out on it. Respite for some, dearly held recreation for others, food, and much more. Snow and ice also are critical components of local U.S. economies across the region: Winter skiing and snowmobiling account for some $3.5 billion, a recent estimate said. A single ice fishing tournament can inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into communities.

But in parts of Lake Superior, the ice season has been shrinking by an average of almost a day each year for the past few decades. That means the year Leavitt was born, a winter on Superior would have included more than a month more ice cover than it does today. Superior also is warming faster than every other large lake on Earth, except Lake Fräcksjön in Sweden.

View Images

JANUARY 26, 2020. LAKE ONTARIO. Lightly dressed locals gather at the Lake Ontario waterfront.

The other Great Lakes’ ice seasons are shrinking as well, by an average of about half a day per year. That may sound small and benign, but it masks much more critical change in a place where the line between ice and no ice, snow and rain, can be razor thin.

It’s difficult to see the change clearly, in some cases, because there’s huge year-to-year variation, says Jia Wang, a climatologist at NOAA who focuses on ice cover in the Great Lakes region. Though they’re hundreds of miles from the oceans, the lakes feel weather influences from both the Pacific and the Atlantic, and incorporate those weather patterns into their own.

So, although one year may be warmer than the one before, some recent winters were icy cold. In 2013-14, the polar vortex carried frigid air from the Arctic into the continental U.S., and the cold stretched well south of the Great Lakes. Total ice cover on the Great Lakes spanned more than 90 percent, growing so thick in some places that the augers ice anglers used couldn’t reach the water.

The extra-tricky part is that the presence and growth of lake ice each winter create a complicated sequence of events.

Maybe it gets cold enough for ice to form early in the winter—but if a stretch of bitter wind keeps the water’s surface churning, ice will form later. Maybe the summer before was extra warm, zapping enough extra heat into the water that it takes it extra long to cool off and get to the point when it can start to freeze. Maybe a bunch of snow falls early in the season, insulating the ice from the top and, counterintuitively, keeping it from growing quickly through the cold temperatures.

View Images

FEBRUARY 1, 2020. LAKE HURON. Doug Bloomfield and Cooper Nothof brave the waves on the shores of Goderich, Ontario, on Lake Huron. The city is building a stone wall to protect its shoreline from erosion, high water levels, storms, and crashing waves. In November a storm ripped the city’s boardwalk apart.

View Images

FEBRUARY 5, 2020. Culture in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula thrives in the winter months, says Kasey Spencer, manager of the Cozy Corners Bar in Barbeau, Michigan. “Our winters are changing drastically," she says. “They’re a lot warmer; we’re getting more rain. This year we only got below zero once, and we’re used to having 30 below all the time. It’s actually been kind of a relief. It’s kind of like summer. We don’t wear coats in this kind of weather. When it’s 24? That’s warm for us.”

Some factors aren’t so complicated. The air is getting warmer. So is the water, in many places faster than the air. In the Northern Hemisphere, nearly 15,000 lakes that used to freeze consistently now ice over intermittently, if at all.

‘It feels like something’s wrong’

Winter is integral to the culture of the Great Lakes region. Warm mid-February days draw Michiganders outside, but they’re uneasy.

“We like it when it’s nice like this, but it’s not real winter unless it’s, like, minus 40,” says Kasey Spencer, a lifelong Upper Peninsula resident. “When it’s cold, we’re miserable—but we’re also really happy, you know? If we have a really warm winter, it feels like something’s wrong.”

View Images

FEBRUARY 14, 2020. LAKE HURON. The Bad Beaches, an all-female ice hockey team from Detroit, compete in the 14th annual Labatt Pond Hockey Tournament in St. Ignace, Michigan. Participants come from around the United States—and even from abroad—for the amateur competition on Lake Huron.

View Images

FEBRUARY 15, 2020. LAKE HURON. In Caseville, Michigan, a participant in the polar bear plunge braves the icy Lake Huron waters during the town’s 28th annual Shanty Days festival. The event once took place on the ice. Now most activities are on the shore because the lake ice is not reliably thick enough.

View Images

FEBRUARY 15, 2020. LAKE HURON. After the polar bear plunge, participants warm up in a hot tub.

What the future holds is both more and less. There’s more heat in the air, trapped by the greenhouse gases humans continue to pump into the atmosphere. Climate experts forecast air temperatures in the Great Lakes basin to rise by another degree or so by 2045, and roughly six to 10 degrees by 2100. There’s also more heat in the water, forced in during long, hot summers.

However, some scientists predict that by the end of the 2030s, there will be 15 to 16 fewer days with the minimum temperature below freezing in the Great Lakes basin, and by the 2050s a few more. By the end of the century, depending on the strength and aggressiveness of climate actions taken, 27 to 42 fewer days each year could be below freezing, scientists say.

In the 2015 Paris climate accord, 195 signatories agreed to try to limit planetary warming from surpassing 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees Celsius) beyond preindustrial levels. Sharma estimates that even if those goals are met, more than 35,000 Northern Hemisphere lakes could lose their consistent winter ice. Under the most dire warming scenarios, more than 200,000 lakes could have more ice-free years.

View Images

FEBRUARY 24, 2020. Kristie Leavitt catches a pike in her homemade pink shanty on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Leavitt runs Dan’s Resort, a spot with some cabins and a bait shop that caters to ice anglers in the area. Leavitt lives for the winter months and ice fishing. Unlike most spots on the Great Lakes, Munuscong Lake had thick ice last winter. The previous weekend, Leavitt hosted a three-day fishing tournament that drew nearly 700 anglers from all over the state and beyond.

“Things like ice and water have a long memory,” says Richard Rood, of the University of Michigan, who studies the ways climate change is playing out across the Great Lakes region. “What we’re seeing is some systematic increases in temperature over the long run, putting you closer to the freeze-thaw cycle of water. And you’re seeing winters getting warmer, shorter—so you just don’t have the amount of time you used to for thermodynamics to do their thing.”

If the water doesn’t cool down enough during the winter, it gets warmer, faster, in the spring and summer. Over time, and especially as the climate keeps up its inexorable warming, the system could wind itself up more and more—a self-reinforcing loop.

View Images

MARCH 1, 2020. Joe Griffin, on a hike in Michigan's Saugatuck State Park, acknowledges that big changes are rippling through the climate and weather system. “Prior to this year, I was kind of like, whatever, what do they call it... it’s cyclical. Every 20 years we have warm winters,” he says. “But this year was the first year I’ve noticed our rivers haven’t frozen up for duck hunters. We haven’t seen the frozen rivers that we saw when I was a kid. The shore is usually ice as far as you can see, but you can swim out there right now if you wanted to. I’m not a scientist one way or another, but it’s obviously warmer.”

View Images

MARCH 1, 2020. LAKE MICHIGAN. A woman and her dog walk the muddy beach along unfrozen Lake Michigan, where the 2019-2020 winter ice cover never topped 20 percent.

“At some point these areas that maybe sometimes get ice and sometimes don’t, they’re going to transition to never getting ice,” Knoll says. “How are people going to interact with those water bodies when they never get ice at all? How are they going to adjust? How are their lives going to change?”

Leavitt hesitates when she starts to talk about the future. The world as she sees it is still ice covered; each year is another opportunity for cold. But occasionally, the concerns bubble up. “Sometimes I just don’t know,” she says as she sets up to fish, strands of hair wisping around her intent face. “Will all this still be around when I’m 70?”

Staff writer Alejandra Borunda covers the environment. Amy Sacka is a documentary photographer based in Detroit who focuses on the people, culture, and environments of the Great Lakes. Follow her on Instagram @amysacka.

This story was updated on October 1, 2020.