Lake Michigan ice harbors hidden danger, naturalist says

2014-02-08T20:45:00Z 2014-02-08T23:05:21Z Lake Michigan ice harbors hidden danger, naturalist saysSusan O’Leary Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
February 08, 2014 8:45 pm  • 

PORTER | Lake Michigan resembled the frozen tundra Saturday, as nearly 40 people, bundled in heavy boots, parkas, mittens, hats and scarves, dodged snowflakes and trudged through deep snow to see shelf ice and learn how it forms.

Brad Bumgardner, Indiana Dunes State Park interpretive naturalist, led the hike to the lake’s edge and escorted the group to the top of the beach pavilion for a bird’s-eye view of the shelf ice during a Shelf Ice Exploration program.

Bumgardner said Lake Michigan’s surface does not stay calm enough to completely freeze. But as small areas freeze, waves break up the frozen sections into chunks of ice, called float ice. At the same time, ice forms along the shoreline. Waves push the float ice into the shoreline, creating shelf ice.

Most people don’t realize that shelf ice is not a solid piece of ice, Bumgardner said.

Imagine a bulldozer knocked down a brick building and then pushed all the bricks up into an unstable pile, Bumgardner said.

“The ice shelf is like that, blocks of ice that are pushed together and refreeze,” Bumgardner said. “They are full of air pockets and full of dangers.”

Those who venture out onto shelf ice should beware, Bumgardner said. A person could fall into a pocket of ice up to his neck and be trapped in 32-degree lake water that would “instantly drain you.”

“You could be stuck in a great wall of ice,” Bumgardner said. “The hole can close back up behind you and lock you in.”

Bumgardner said even though warning signs are posted along the beach, people venture out to the ice shelf every day. Staff patrol the beach and herd them back in.

Marcia and David Malicki ventured east from South Bend, making their first trip to the state park.

“I just wanted out,” Marcia Malicki said.

Reminiscing about his younger days, David Malicki said he and his friends would travel to Tower Hill in Michigan and walk on ice chunks in the lake.

Bumgardner said ice levels on the Great Lakes are at record highs, and even Lake Superior — which is currently 93 percent frozen — is expected to fully freeze in the coming weeks.

“It’s the most ice we’ve had in 20 years,” Bumgardner said.

As soon as temperatures warm in spring, the ice “breaks up really fast,” said Bumgardner, making it rare to see ice on the lake beyond early April.

Depending on spring temperatures, water temperature could be anywhere between 46 and 62 degrees by Memorial Day, he said.

With the holiday still far away, the Malickis said they appreciate the dunes even in frigid temperatures.

“I love Lake Michigan in winter,” Marcia Malicki said.

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