At this time last year, lakes were frozen, ice fishermen were out, and snow covered everything.
This year is very different. El Niño, a complex weather pattern that describes the fluctuations in temperature between the ocean and atmosphere in the Eastern Pacific, has delayed the cold temperatures and snow this winter causing temperatures too warm for any Michigan lakes to freeze over.
Because of El Niño, the weather resembles autumn with no snow, above 40-degree temperatures and unfrozen lakes, which could have an adverse effect on water levels.
Jim Francis, the Lake Erie Basin coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, said he hasn’t heard of any lakes in Michigan that have frozen over.
“You have to take it on a case by case basis,” he said.
There are pros and cons to the weather being too warm to freeze the lakes.
“Typically when we have a late winter, it usually reduces the amount of winter kill we get,” he said. “It typically happens in shallow lakes. “That would be in the plus column,” he said.
Winter kill is the amount of fish that die during the usually-cold season.
“Once you develop an ice cover, it separates the water and the air. Whatever oxygen is in the water has to last throughout the winter,” Francis said.
In more shallow lakes, the oxygen runs out faster resulting in more winter kill.
However, El Niño is affecting the ice fishing season.
“It’s definitely keeping anglers off the ice. That does affect the amount of fish that get harvested,” he said.
It’s normally possible to ice fish in southeast Michigan during winter break, but this year it’s too warm.
According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is a 90-percent chance the effects of El Niño could last throughout the whole winter, not only the beginning.
The warm weather effects were steadily increasing last year and they could have adverse effects on Michigan lakes. Water levels are reduced when lakes don’t freeze over because more water evaporates.
“If you have ice it eliminates evaporation,” Francis said. “If you don’t have an ice cover, the lake continues to evaporate,” Francis said.
According to wbez.com, The Great Lakes ice cover has declined 71 percent since 1973 because of rising temperatures, and Lake Michigan experienced record low lake levels in the past few years.
“It can potentially reduce the lake level. It depends on how much snow we get. They can be replenished,” Francis said.
The warmer weather doesn’t affect fish behavior or where they choose to live during winter.
“Water temperatures are very similar whether you have ice or not. Water temperatures are probably only a degree more than last year with an ice cover,” Francis said.
He said the warmer weather isn’t a good or bad thing, just different.
“You know the weather in Michigan. Give it an hour, it’ll change. You have wait and see how the winter turns out,” he said.
Source: National Oceanic Service