Long Winter Good for Something

After myriad problems caused by low water levels on the Great Lakes last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District held a press conference on March 5 to report that the long, harsh winter of 2013-14 will have a benefit on this year’s lake levels.

The early and extreme cold and constant snowfall has created an encouraging picture for Great Lakes water levels, said Keith Kompoltowicz, the Detroit District’s chief of watershed hydrology.

“Most of the Great Lakes basin has received between 120 percent to 300 percent more snowfall than an average season,” Kompoltowicz said.

That means a large amount of water contained in the snow waiting to melt. Kompoltowicz referred to this as the snow-water equivalent – or the amount of water contained in the snowpack.

“It’s the highest it has been in the past decade,” he said. “Water in snow makes up a large part of what causes lakes to rise in spring.”

For Lakes Michigan and Huron (the Corps considers them one lake), that will equate to four to eight inches of water from melting snow.

The frigid temperatures will also contribute to higher lake levels than last year. Kompoltowicz said temperatures were 8 to 15 degrees below normal throughout the Great Lakes region, which translates into greater ice coverage and less evaporation. He mentioned that Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula recorded 75 consecutive days of below freezing, and 49 of those were below zero, which set a new record for the city.

George Leshkevich, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and an expert an ice cover, said the maximum ice cover – calculated on March 4 –for the entire Great Lakes region is 91 percent, making it the second highest ice cover since 1973. He pointed out that the long-term average ice cover for the region during February is 77.6 percent.

Kompoltowicz explained that the Corps normally does a water level forecast for all the Great Lakes. Lakes Michigan and Huron right now are 577.26 above sea level, which is 13 inches higher than one year ago, but still 13 inches below its long-term average.

Which is good news when you consider that Lakes Michigan and Huron one year ago in January set an all-time record low level for any month going back to 1918.

“They’ve rebounded significantly since then,” he said.

He said we can expect Lakes Michigan and Huron to remain anywhere from 9 to 14 inches above a year ago, but still 9 to 12 inches below long-term averages.

However, he added, “wet conditions could bring a much larger seasonal rise.”