A record-breaking low ice cover over the Great Lakes during winter 2011/2012: combined effects of a strong positive NAO and La Niña

Xuezhi Bai, Jia Wang, Jay Austin, David J. Schwab, Raymond Assel, Anne Clites, John F. Bratton, Marie Colton, John Lenters, Brent Lofgren, Trudy Wohlleben, Sean Helfrich, Henry Vanderploeg, Lin Luo, George Leshkevich

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16 Scopus citations


A record-breaking low ice cover occurred in the North American Great Lakes during winter 2011/2012, in conjunction with a strong positive Arctic Oscillation/North Atlantic Oscillation (+AO/NAO) and a La Niña event. Large-scale atmosphere circulation in the Pacific/North America (PNA) region reflected a combined signal of La Niña and +NAO. Surface heat flux analysis shows that sensible heat flux contributed most to the net surface heat flux anomaly. Surface air temperature is the dominant factor governing the interannual variability of Great Lakes ice cover. Neither La Niña nor +NAO alone can be responsible for the extreme warmth; the typical mid-latitude response to La Niña events is a negative PNA pattern, which does not have a significant impact on Great Lakes winter climate; the positive phase of NAO is usually associated with moderate warming. When the two occurred simultaneously, the combined effects of La Niña and +NAO resulted in a negative East Pacific pattern with a negative center over Alaska/Western Canada, a positive center in the eastern North Pacific (north of Hawaii), and an enhanced positive center over the eastern and southern United States. The overall pattern prohibited the movement of the Arctic air mass into mid-latitudes and enhanced southerly flow and warm advection from the Gulf of Mexico over the eastern United States and Great Lakes region, leading to the record-breaking low ice cover. It is another climatic pattern that can induce extreme warming in the Great Lakes region in addition to strong El Niño events. A very similar event occurred in the winter of 1999/2000. This extreme warm winter and spring in 2012 had significant impacts on the physical environment, as well as counterintuitive effects on phytoplankton abundance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1187-1213
Number of pages27
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Mar 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014, Springer-Verlag (outside the USA).


  • ENSO
  • Great Lakes ice cover
  • Ice growth
  • La Nina
  • NAO
  • Surface heat budget


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