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Great Lakes ice coverage still breaking records

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It’s nearly May and the Great Lakes are still largely frozen with surface ice melting at the slowest rate in recorded history. On April 20, Lake Superior was over 60 percent covered with ice up to 24 inches thick, severely impacting both shipping and wildlife.

Normally, ice constitutes only two percent of the Great Lakes’ surface by this time of year. According to satellite imagery captured by NASA on April 20, nearly 34 percent of the Great Lakes remained covered in ice. This is the most ice ever observed on the Great Lakes in late April since highly detailed satellite imagery became available in the late 1970s.

For perspective, last year on April 20, only 3.6 percent of Lake Superior was frozen. In 2012, Lake Superior was completely ice-free by April 12. The last time Lake Superior froze over in 2009, ice cover melted down to 6.7 percent by April 21.

With ice-breaking efforts still ongoing in Lake Superior, 70 freighter ships were reportedly backlogged on April 22 while awaiting escort through otherwise impassable ice. Only small convoys of five ships at a time are being permitted through the locks along Sault Ste. Marie. Six ships have already sustained damage from the ice.

Waterfowl are also reeling from the effects of the pervasive ice coverage on the Great Lakes that began in early December 2013. Along the Niagara River corridor between Lakes Erie and Ontario, as well as southern Lake Michigan and Lake St. Claire, tens of thousands of ducks have perished from starvation. Persistent ice cover has rendered their underwater food sources unavailable for months.

During an ordinary winter, temperature fluctuations cause periodic thawing that affords waterfowl the opportunity to dive for food. Due to the unrelenting cold this past winter, necropsies showed that many duck stomachs and intestines were stuffed with feathers, such was their desperation for nourishment.

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