Will Lake Erie freeze over? Ice remains at a premium so far this winter

Weather Blog

ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) – Lake Erie is open water as of January 20. According to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, less than one percent of the lake is covered in ice. Last year the Lake was 23.7 percent covered in ice by January 20 and in 2019 the lake was nearly 85 percent frozen over by this time.

Monitored daily using satellites, the Great Lakes have very little ice on them compared to past years.

Lake Ontario is also nearly all ice free, but Ontario never freezes over because of its depth. Erie is much more shallow and can regularly freeze over. Lake Erie ice averages about 40 percent by the middle of January. This can vary wildly from year to year, so while it is not alarming that such little ice exists, it is noteworthy. A good example of the variability was in January 2013 when ice made up .1 percent. That was followed by a whopping 86.2 percent by January 2014. Find the data here.

The Mild Winter

It has felt like anything but winter as temperatures held well above average through December and the first part of January. Both the Northeast and the upper Midwest have been mild. That has prevented from any significant ice development.

While there is a lag in dropping air temperatures to dropping lake temperatures because of specific heat differences, mild overnight lows have helped slow the average fall of water temperature. Check out the Great Lake water temperatures as of Wednesday, January 20th. Both Erie and Ontario are sitting above freezing with Ontario especially above average for this point in January, sitting in the lower 40s in most areas.


In fact, both lakes water temperature wise are sitting at their warmest at this point for January in over 20 years! You can find more data here.

Rochester was around 3° above average through December. Most of the colder days coincided with a warm up that prevented from ice development. Early January was more of the same with an impressive stretch of overnight lows. Many ran over 10° above average. This has been a problem for some, like ice fishers that need a thick layer of ice to develop before venturing out on the water. Four inches or more is recommended, and the warm weather that teeters around freezing can lead to water forming a deceiving layer of ice that may not be safe.

The rest of the Great Lakes are in a very similar boat with only a small amount of ice in place through the middle of January (see .gif from above).

Ice cover heavily impacts our fuel supply in creating lake effect snow. While the waters have been ready and primed all season long with nice warm water, the cold air coming in from above has been overall lacking. Have we gotten a decent amount of lake effect snow events in spots? Yes, but it’s been relatively underwhelming with much of the snow neglecting to stick to a warm ground for most spots. Now as we round the corner of mid January, the second half of winter may turn things around…


The cold is coming, and that should turn this ‘low ice’ trend around. Large bouts of colder air look to plunge southward across the Great Lakes and should allow for ice to establish across the entire region. Lake Erie should gain significant ice coverage through the end of the month and into early February. It is likely that all the lakes will gain a significant amount of ice during this time.

This is the forecast from the Climate Prediction Center for the last part of January. It puts New York State in a higher likelihood of below average temperatures.

Catch the News 8 full forecast here.

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