The frigid cold in Northwest Indiana has formed beautiful but unstable shelf ice along the Lake Michigan shoreline over the last few weeks.

Shelf ice, which forms when a portion of a lake surface freezes, is not solid.

Bruce Rowe, spokesman for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, said shelf ice can be deadly.

"The ice surface starts to freeze, and you get waves from the north, and it crashes against the shoreline," Rowe said Thursday. "It looks like little mountains of ice, and then you get calm weather and flat ice forms behind it, and then you get more ridges of ice mountains."

Rowe said while it looks solid, only parts of it are. "But the lake moves and churns, and you get weak spots or gaps, and you can fall through the lake. The odds of getting out are close to zero," he said.

It looks like the arctic, but "because of wave action on the ice it is never safe to go out there, especially at Indiana Dunes. Any sort of ice, big or small, you really have to be careful," Rowe said.

And with all the cold weather lately, the ice is building up.

Rowe said people can check it out safely by going to the Lake View Beach picnic area on Lakefront Drive in Beverly Shores, or from the park's bathhouses.

Michigan City Park Superintendent Jeremy Kienitz issued a shelf ice warning Thursday, asking people to stay off both the shelf ice and the lighthouse pier.

According to that advisory, a person applying even a small amount of weight on the shelf ice can easily fall through and into frigid water. If they fall through, hypothermia will set in quickly and survival is unlikely.

The lighthouse pier is also coated in ice, which can lead to slipping and falling off the pier.

Indiana Dunes State Park interpretive naturalist Marie Laudeman said ice is a beautiful phenomenon, but shelf ice is a different creature.

"The ice pockets are freezing together, leaving room for lots of holes and cracks, and that makes it unsafe to walk on. The forces of Lake Michigan are difficult enough to manage during the warm weather months without adding the more severe elements of winter," she said.

Laudeman said all park employees have been versed on the dangers of shelf ice.

"The main thing is to respect its beauty," she said. "At the Indiana Dunes State Park, we promote safety first. We have signs out there encouraging visitors to respect the ice and view it from the shorelines." She said there has been an increase in traffic at the park with people checking out the phenomenon.

"But when you are out there, don't step onto surfaces that are slippery," she said. "I appreciate the cold, and this is the closest you can get to the arctic landscape."

Laudeman said visitors are checking out the shelf ice and abiding by the rules.

"I'm really excited to see the formation," she said.

At Whihala Beach in Whiting, beach supervisor Nick Kalwinski said the park staff issued a warning for people to heed the signage at the beach and not go out on the ice.

"It is so dangerous to go out there on the ice because it gives a false sense of security," Kalwinski said. "I've been keeping an eye on things here every day, and people are heeding the warnings and common sense is prevailing. We try to do a lot of education, and that helps."

Kalwinski said they also tell people to keep their dogs on a leash and off the ice.

"The dogs can get into trouble on the ice, too," he said. "We have plenty of safe areas here at the beach for people to view the shelf ice."

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Community Coordinator

Annette is Porter County Community Coordinator for The Times. She has been with the paper for 20 years. A resident of Hobart, she graduated from Purdue University with degrees in English and German.