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With 2023 officially recognized as the hottest year on record, 2024 has kicked off with a concerning new record of its own: the least ice coverage on the Great Lakes in half a century.

At the start of the year, average ice cover on the world’s largest collection of freshwater lakes was 0.4 per cent, the lowest since ice levels began to be tracked in 1973, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since then roughly 1 per cent of the lakes have frozen over, the second-lowest level and well below the historical average of 14 per cent for this time of year.

Unseasonably warm weather last month has been a boon to shipping companies. On Dec. 29 the Canadian-flagged cargo ship Nordika Desgagnes left Duluth, Minn., at the western tip of Lake Superior, making it the latest oceangoing vessel departure from the inland seaport since 1959. Combined with the port’s earliest ever oceangoing arrival on March 28, 2023, it was the port’s longest international traffic season.

Likewise the St. Lawrence River section of the seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean had its latest ever close this year. Over the past 25 years the seaway has gained an average of 12 additional days of navigation time, though that’s also come with an increase in weather events such as fog, strong winds and sustained rains that can create delays, according to Jean Aubry-Morin, a spokesperson for the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

On the other hand, businesses that cater to winter tourism crowds like outdoor skating rinks and ski hills have faced a difficult start. Ski hills on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border would typically be in full operation by now, but many have had to rely on artificial snow to cover the dirt.

It’s still early in the year, and ice coverage across the Great Lakes can change dramatically during the season, but the ice-free start to the year has already meant big change for the winter economy.

Decoder is a weekly feature that unpacks an important economic chart.

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