By Peter Daining
Even if you’ve lived in West Michigan your entire life, I bet you’ll find something new in this article. Of course, you don’t need to know much about our big lake in order to enjoy its beauty, no matter what the season.
We all know lake effect snow adds to our local snowfalls each winter but by how much? Let’s take a little trip inland on I-96 to find out. We’ll start in Muskegon, which receives an average of 93.7 inches of snow annually. Now let’s head west to Grand Rapids. We’ve gone 35 miles, and we’re already down almost 20 inches of snowfall to 74.9 inches a year. Keep going to Lansing and we drop almost two more feet to 51.1 inches. Once we reach Michigan’s east side, Detroit is at a measly 42.7 inches. Muskegon gets more than twice as much snow as Detroit, in large part due to the perspiration from our big lake. The two winters I lived in Grand Haven, I remember feeling like it was always snowing, even if they were just lazy little snowflakes that seemed to hang in the air.
People often assume that the howling winter winds storming off Lake Michigan make the lakeshore colder than further inland. Actually, the opposite is true. Because the water is typically warmer than the winter air, Lake Michigan helps bring temperatures up a degree or two. Let’s compare cities: Holland’s average January temperature is 26.1 degrees Fahrenheit and Muskegon’s is 25.4 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Now let’s head east: Grand Rapids has a 24.4-degree January average and Kalamazoo’s is 24.5 degrees. It’s not a huge difference, but I always thought I could feel it when I was living in Grand Rapids and working to Grand Haven. Of course, it was probably mostly in my head.
Lake Michigan has never completely frozen over, according to National Weather Service data, but it’s been close. The closest it has come is 90- to 95-percent covered, which happened three times. It happened in 1904, 1977, and 1979. Typically, ice begins to build up in December and January as the lake temperature dips, and the greatest amount of ice is found on the lake in late February and into early March. In a normal year, the ice will pile up along West Michigan beaches, but you can usually see open water beyond it.
An estimated 125 million tons of cargo are hauled during the 10-month shipping season on the Great Lakes. But for about two months in late winter, the ice is too widespread for the U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers to keep up. So the Soo Locks shut down and many of the shipping vessels are brought in for repairs. Some workers stay on duty, but most of the 44,000 workers with jobs directly related to Great Lakes shipping take a break from life on the open water.
Did you know that from a scientific perspective, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are actually one big lake? They are connected by the Straits of Mackinac, which is several miles wide and 120 feet deep. It’s big enough to allow the free flow of water between the two basins, and they have the exact same water level. They are typically not considered one lake, however, because of the size of each basin compared to the relatively small size of the Mackinac Straits. Plus, they’ve been called separate names for so long that it wouldn’t be easy to change. If considered one big lake, Lake Michigan-Huron would be by far the biggest lake in the world by surface area at 45,300 square miles. As things stand, that title goes to our neighbor to the north, Lake Superior, which is 31,700 square miles.