The 2014 version of the Great Lakes region’s incredible spectacle of ice — one of the most dazzling displays of frozen art provided by nature in years — is slowly fading.
Despite the heavy, late-season snowstorm Wednesday and the forecast for temperatures in the 20s today, the great thaw is gradually settling in as daily highs are expected to climb back into the 40s on Friday.
Expect another curve thrown our way this weekend, with the forecast calling for freezing daytime temperatures on Sunday and Monday after being in the high 30s on Saturday, which is the usual March zigzag.
But while this throwback of a winter has included its fair number of surprises and memorable bonechilling events, the calendar suggests spring is on the way, meaning the days of icy splendor between Duluth and Montreal will be melting into a more familiar, watery vista over the next several weeks.
Thousands of people have visited western Lake Superior ice caves in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands and in northern Lake Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula.
While many of the Great Lakes region’s 30 million U.S. and 10 million Canadian residents are fed up with winter, many others have braved subzero temperatures to go out on the ice.
They’ve flocked in such crowds up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline that sheriff’s offices and local police have gone out to control Super Bowl-like traffic jams at times.
Ice balls the size of boulders have been found along the Sleeping Bear shores of Lake Michigan. Images have appeared of wolves venturing out on Isle Royale’s frozen cliffs.
False stories even spread that the cold had frozen Niagara Falls solid — talk generated by some crafty photographs circulated across the Internet that had been taken at strategic angles. The American and Canadian falls have indeed had more ice than usual.
Amazing winter ice formations are nothing new for the Great Lakes region, but many agree they’ve been more dramatic this winter because of the sheer volume of ice.
Ice covered 92.2 percent of the Great Lakes March 6, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That’s the most since 94.7 percent of the Great Lakes surface area was frozen over in early 1979. As of Monday, less than 84 percent of the ice cover remained, according to NOAA.
Contrary to what many wonder — if this winter will ever end — the question isn’t if that ice will melt. It’s how fast.
Heavy rain or rapid melting could play havoc with the region’s storm sewers and result in flooding.
“We’re certainly paying very close attention to the weather in the next few weeks,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, hydrology branch chief of the Army Corps of Engineers district office in Detroit.
The corps and NOAA are the two federal agencies that predict and monitor Great Lakes water levels.
Late last fall, the corps said it expected a winter robust enough to help restore some of the long-suppressed Great Lakes water levels.
The region got that and more. In addition to thick ice holding in more water, lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron have had their best snowpack in a decade. The upper lakes’ water levels greatly influence the levels of Erie and Ontario because of how the water flows down to them.
Ice also has sealed off a lot of winter evaporation.
Although scientists are learning evaporation in the fall has been somewhat underrated, winter evaporation continues to be among the most dramatic.
The lakes are under great stress — and expend a lot of energy — just because they freeze over because of the differences between air and water temperatures.
“By a long shot, this is the most ice we’ve had on Lake Superior in 20 years,” Jay Austin, associate professor at the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, Minn., told Accuweather.com .