Lake Ontario & Erie see warmest lake waters in 26 years

Weather Blog

ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) – If you haven’t heard already, we’re about to get some of the coldest air of the season over the next several days as a blast of arctic air is sent over our heads. You can read more about our plunge into the cold HERE.

However, our attention for a moment goes to our Great Lakes. Why? Because lake water temperatures are sitting at some of the highest they’ve been in years for this point in January.

Let’s take a look where we stand now with our two biggest lake influences for Western New York:

January 27th 

Swipe the image below to see Lake Ontario surface water temperatures compared to Lake Erie surface water temperatures.

Data courtesy NOAA

As it stands now Lake Ontario surface waters average around 43℉ with a daily mean surface temperature of 39℉, while Lake Erie sits at about 36℉ when rounding up to the nearest degree. Note how Lake Erie falls nearly 10 degrees colder than Ontario. This largely has to do with Lake Ontario being a much deeper lake, and with more water means the slower it reacts to heat changes.

We know our winter has been a mild one, and that has had a huge impact on lake water temperatures. At first glance, these temperatures may not seem that out of the ordinary. Temperatures in the 30s and 40s is still considered cool, but if you compare where these lake temperatures were at this point over pervious years, you can see just how interesting the comparison is.

The two graphs above show average Lake Ontario and Erie water surface temperatures from January to December compared to the current year. The blue line represents data from 1995 to 2020, and the red line represents the current year, our current year being 2021.

Lake Ontario is currently sitting at 4℃, or around 39℉ according to this data with Lake Erie currently just over 2℃, or roughly 35℉ indicated by the red line. According to the average from 1995 to 2020, Lake Ontario at this point in the year usually sits at about 2.5℃, or 36℉ with Erie typically sitting at one degree above freezing.

There’s a bit of wiggle room with these numbers, but the bottom line here is that compared to the previous 25 years, these lakes are sitting almost 2 degrees above where they typically have averaged over the past 25 years.

Why do we care?

Our Great Lakes, specifically Lake Ontario and Erie have major influences over our climate year round. More relevantly, they’re the reason we get lake effect snow, and quite a decent amount of it. Having warm waters plus enough cold air moving over them allow for prime lake effect snow conditions, and our incoming cold blast is a good inclination we’ll be able see more lake flakes fly to keep adding to our snow totals little by little each day. Over the past 7 days we’ve slowly been adding to the snow totals with little events here and there. It may be tough to notice at first, but these events will eventually start adding up.

Lake water temperatures also to no surprise influence how much ice can build throughout the course of the winter. We know our winter so far has been lacking with both cold air and ice, but with even colder air set to arrive in the forecast, it’s likely by this weekend we could start to see minimal increases in ice. Enough for full blown ice sports? Perhaps not, but we are certainly stepping in the right direction.

How cold are we getting? Check out the latest forecast update HERE.

Getting ice to build across the Great Lakes takes a lot more moving parts than just getting temperatures to drop below freezing. There are other factors including wind direction and speed, and the turbulent nature of the waves that all come together to impact how ice forms, and even how thick it can get.

~Meteorologist Christine Gregory

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