Possible rewording: Perpetual cloud cover in the Great Lakes region of the US may negatively impact the mental well-being of residents.
Last winter was especially dreary for the 34 million individuals living in the Great Lakes region of the United States, as there was a significant lack of sunlight. This could potentially have a negative impact on the mental well-being of residents in the future.
During the initial eight days of January 2023, Grand Rapids, Michigan only experienced five minutes of sunlight. In Chicago, the same month marked the cloudiest January in 129 years. In addition, there was a period of over three weeks where the 6.3 million residents of the greater Toronto area did not have any sun exposure.
These accounts are not merely stories. A study conducted by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts revealed that January 2023 had some of the highest levels of cloud cover for several cities near the Great Lakes since 1950.
Experts believe that establishing a direct connection between climate change and winter cloud cover is challenging. However, when lakes are not frozen, they can absorb moisture from the water, which contributes to the formation of clouds and lake-effect snow.
“According to Steve Vavrus, the climatologist and director of Wisconsin’s climatology office, last winter saw intense cloud coverage in the Great Lakes region, which corresponded with a significant decrease in ice cover on the Great Lakes.”
“We are aware that unfrozen lakes promote increased snowfall due to higher evaporation rates above the water’s surface.”
For many years, the five Great Lakes have been seeing a decrease in ice formation. On average, there is only 9% ice cover at the beginning of the year, but this year on January 1st, there was only 0.4% – the lowest amount since 1973 when records began.
The millions of individuals residing near or on the Great Lakes may face significant mental health consequences as a result. Specialists warn that decreased sunlight exposure may lead to detrimental effects on mental well-being.
Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, explained that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is associated with shifts in light and can greatly affect a person’s mood. This means that cloud cover can have a major influence on someone’s emotional state.
During the winter and fall months, individuals may experience increased feelings of depression, low energy, excessive sleep, overeating, cravings for carbohydrates, and reduced social interaction.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 5% of adults in America experience seasonal affective disorder which is a type of depression associated with limited exposure to sunlight during the winter.
Although the precise reason for Sad is not understood, it is believed that reduced exposure to sunlight may have a significant impact.
According to Prewitt, individuals living in regions with less daylight are more likely to experience sadness. She specifically cites her hometown of Cleveland as one of these areas.
A recent analysis using data from Google searches and other sources revealed that three out of the top five states in the United States, where people searched for terms like “seasonal depression” and “seasonal affective disorder”, are located in the Great Lakes area. Ohio, which shares a 262-mile (421.7km) border with Lake Erie along its southern coast, ranked second, following Alaska. The remaining two states in the top five are Minnesota and Michigan, also situated along the Great Lakes.
A study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory from 1998 to 2016 reveals that the Great Lakes states and Ontario receive significantly less solar radiation than other regions in North America.
Although Cleveland and Chicago are known for their cloudy winters, their lower latitudes result in more daylight during the coldest months compared to other cities in the region.
During this time of year, cities like Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, situated on the shores of Lake Superior, the northernmost Great Lake, only experience about 9 hours and 15 minutes of daylight. In comparison, even cities like New York City, known for its dreary winters, receive an additional 30 minutes of daylight per day.
Although researchers have indicated that accurately simulating clouds in models is challenging, it is probable that we will experience cloudier days in the future.
According to Vavrus, the connection between climate change and increased cloud cover is difficult to establish. This is because although the presence of open lakes may have played a role in the regional cloudiness, winter clouds also have the effect of keeping the lakes warmer than normal.
“However, a decrease in ice coverage on the Great Lakes could lead to an increase in cloud cover, both in the surrounding areas and downstream.”
Ice coverage, which has decreased by 71% from 1973 to 2010, is expected to continue to decline in the coming decades. According to experts, ice is likely to only form in the shallow areas of the Great Lakes, such as the western basin of Lake Erie where the water is 25 to 30 feet deep, or along the shorelines. Despite the recent frigid temperatures across North America, ice cover on Lake Erie remains significantly lower than usual. Lake Superior, which is larger and deeper, also has below average ice coverage.
“The ice’s seasonality, thickness, and longevity will undergo alterations,” stated Richard Rood, a retired professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan. He acknowledges that the root cause of these changes is the emission of carbon dioxide and methane gases, leading to global warming.
It is expected that ice will form during brief periods of cold weather in the middle of winter. This ice will have different qualities compared to the long-lasting, annual ice that was once prevalent before 2000.