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Icy winter could bring higher lake levels this summer

(NEWSCHANNEL 3) - Ships making their way through Lake Superior are having a tough time because of ice buildup.

The cold temperatures can certainly create breathtaking formations on Lake Michigan's lighthouses, however, experts say the thick ice on the lake acts as a blanket.

Its white color reflects the sunlight and limits evaporation. That means higher lake levels this summer.

Dan Keto with the Kalamazoo Nature Center brought a model cargo ship into the Newschannel 3 studio Sunday morning to give a visual example.

He says Great Lakes ships in the winter still move about 20 percent of their yearly cargo of coal and iron.

"Now if this boat was really 800 feet long, a boat like this could carry 600,000 tons to make about 1,000 cars," Keto explains. "Any time this boat can't sit any deeper in the water, that's money for these boats. I mean, a few inches down, a few inches up, is possibly thousands of dollars."

So, Keto says, since the Great Lakes iced up about a month earlier than last year, it could mean an easier passage for cargo ships this summer.

"Your average depth of Lake Erie is 66 feet, which is like the distance at Tiger Stadium from home plate to the pitcher's mound. That's a scary clearance," Keto says.

He also says cargo ship traffic is a good indicator of the economy. "In good years you see ships backing up at Sault. Ste. Marie, at slow years they trickle in."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also estimates the Great Lakes could have a 62-percent ice coverage this winter, compared to the average of 55 percent.