MICHIGAN CITY – If you've walked along Lake Michigan recently, you probably noticed something missing – ice.

And with the second major storm in two weeks expected to bring snow, rain, high winds and large waves with it, that lack of shelf ice is becoming a major problem, according to meteorologists.

"Usually by this point of the winter, nearly one-quarter of the surface of the Great Lakes has frozen over, with the exception of lakes Ontario and Superior," Accuweather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said. "However, the inconsistent cold weather and above-average temperatures have left much of the waters free of ice thus far this season.

The ice coverage was only 5.2% as of Wednesday, Buckingham said.

Last year on Jan. 15, the overall ice cover was 9.3%, based on data from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Ice coverage tends to increase into March as water temperatures drop and cold air flows over the region, Buckingham said. The lowest maximum ice cover for the season occurred in 2002 with 11.9% coverage at its peak.

Shelf ice is important because it protects the shoreline from the ravaging effects of winter storms and high water levels.

The water level remains at a near-record high, and is not expected to fall as much as usual this winter, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"January 17th lake levels are forecast between 3 and 18 inches higher than last year," the Army Corps reported in its weekly water level update. "The predicted water level of January 17th are ... nearly the same as a month ago for Lakes Michigan-Huron ... and above their record high monthly averages in January by 3 inches."

How high is the water? The Jan. 17, 2020, level was expected to be 581.53 feet – 4 feet above the long-term January average of 577.5 feet; 18 inches above Jan. 17, 2019; 3 inches above the record-high January average set in 1987; and 66 inches above the record-low January average set in 2013.

And the usual big winter drop in levels may not take place this year.

"Looking a month out to February 17th, water levels on Lake Michigan are expected to decrease by 1 inch," the ACOE report said. "High water levels and potentially record-high water levels are expected to persist for at least the next six months, so flood-prone areas are expected to remain vulnerable."

That will make the effects of storms, and the lack of shelf ice, even more problematic for lakeshore areas already being devastated by shoreline erosion.

And no ice on the lake has another negative effect – increasing the frequency and severity of lake-effect snow – which could affect the area starting this weekend.

"Besides a few bouts of cold air, lake-effect snow and storm systems since late in autumn, the winter season has been fairly quiet around the Great Lakes," Buckingham said, "but that is about to change as Arctic air will soon charge across the region with a staying power that could keep the lake-effect snow machine running at full speed.

"The pattern from later this weekend through the middle of next week will bring a real shot of cold weather, rather than the brief glancing blows of cold air the Great Lakes region has experienced so far this season," he said.

Meteorologists predict more episodes of lake-effect snowfall downwind from Lake Michigan in the coming weeks with so little of the lake covered by ice, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory National Ice Center.

"The relatively warm and open waters of the lake will lead to towering clouds of moisture that will unload bands of heavy snow," Buckingham said. "Where bands of lake-effect snow persist to the southeast of the lake, 1-2 feet of snow can pile up with locally higher amounts from Sunday to Monday."

Lake-effect snow is likely to persist on Tuesday and Wednesday, but over progressively smaller areas, he said.

But that will not be the end of it, and "could just be a taste of what to expect over the next few weeks," he said.

"As new waves of Arctic air spin southward from Canada, associated with a southward stretch of the polar vortex, more significant outbreaks of lake-effect snow are possible until the coverage of ice substantially increases in the coming weeks."

NO STATE HELP ON WAY FOR EROSION DAMAGE

Despite pleas from local lawmakers, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security will not declare that an emergency exists from beach erosion along Lake Michigan.

IDHS Executive Director Stephen Cox, in a letter sent Wednesday to state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and state Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, said the damage to public infrastructure along the shoreline in places like Portage, Beverly Shores and Long beach is insufficient to apply for federal disaster funds which require state emergency declaration.

"To date, we are unaware of any loss of infrastructure (i.e. roads, bridges, public utilities, etc.) which would qualify for public assistance funding from federal or state disaster relief programs," Cox wrote.

Tallian, who wrote a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb requesting an emergency declaration, said she was shocked the request was turned down.

“I am amazed and disappointed that the governor would say no to all of the communities on the Lake Michigan shoreline," Tallian said. "Right now, 45 miles of our state’s lakefront is in serious jeopardy. I don’t want the governor to wait until infrastructure and property has fallen into the lake before he takes action.”

Cox said IDHS and other state agencies are "regularly monitoring beach erosion along the lake," in conjunction with local officials and federal agencies, but pointed out that similar erosion issues are occurring in Michigan, and that state has not issued a disaster declaration or sought assistance from FEMA.

"We will remain in contact with local and federal officials and agencies about funding and resources available for preventative measures which may provide some short-term relief from the erosion, but also more permanent, long-term mitigation projects," Cox wrote.

"The governor rejected my request for an emergency declaration for the Lake Michigan shoreline," Tallian said. "As of now, we won't be able to access FEMA money to mitigate the situation, but I'll be looking into other steps we can take for assistance."

And while she said local governments have recognized shoreline erosion as the emergency it is, "It's time for the state to do the same so we can access federal emergency resources."

Officials in Long Beach, Beverly Shores and Portage have declared emergencies because of the erosion, and the Porter County Board of Commissioners have extended a declaration of emergency, originally approved last month, by another 30 days.

– Jeff Mayes

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