The lakes and rivers in Northeast Michigan have been exposed to crazy weather patterns that has caused some concern over how the safe the ice is on them. The current arctic blast the region is experiencing might lead you to believe the ice would be strengthened because of it, but according to weather experts that might not be the case.
The stability of the ice is partially determined by how it initially was formed. Once a body of water is covered, brief weather patterns, such as the cold weather now, have little impact on its strength. Nick Schwartz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord, said how solid the ice will be throughout an entire winter occurs when it is first being formed.
"The best formula for ice is cold nights and calm water," Schwartz said. "If you get a few inches of snow on it, while it is still being formed it can affect its thickness and stability because the snow acts as an insulator. Once the ice gets to a certain point of thickness the amount of snow doesn't matter as much. But when it is still in the process of being formed it makes a big difference in how stable it is."
News Photo by Steve Schulwitz
Alpena Township North fireman/EMT Steve Richardson shows off one of the departments Mustang suits. The waterproof, thermal suits are used for on-ice emergencies such as a person falling through the ice.
Schwartz said the movement of water also plays a role in the formation of ice and its strength. He said calm water leads to stronger ice compared to places where there is high wave activity or currents.
"Channels and rivers that have currents always pose a large threat to the condition of the ice and can be unstable for long periods. When the ice is unstable the weather can have a larger impact on it, so even a brief warm spell can cause the ice to deteriorate," Schwartz said. "Moving water naturally leads to thin ice."
Rescue crews already have been dispatched to one report of a person falling through the ice and are prepared for more. The Alpena Township-North Fire Department has its thermal gear and "Mustang" suits hanging where they can be put on quickly. Department spokesperson Bruce Honeycutt said the ice was a real danger early in the season, but hopes the recent cold temperatures will help to make it safer. He said the department prepares for on-ice emergencies early in the season.
"We have pre-season training sessions just to refresh everyone," Honeycutt said. "We get out the gear and go through it and get everything in place so if there is a person that falls through the ice we are ready to go. We have an inside training and then a mock rescue outdoors just to stay sharp."
Honeycutt said people who are on the ice always should be prepared for an emergency and offered some tips for anyone who takes part in activities on ice covered lakes and rivers.
"Always check the ice as you make your way onto it by poking holes in it with a spud. Many people don't until they reach where they want to fish and then find it thin," Honeycutt said. "Always have another person with you and tell someone where you are going. You should also know your surroundings on the ice and on shore. It is good to have a flotation device available as well. My philosophy is if you even think for one second that the ice may not be safe don't go on it."
Extra caution should be taken if taking sports utility vehicles or snowmobiles on the ice. It is not recommended a car or truck be driven onto the ice no matter what its thickness is. Honeycutt said anyone who falls through the ice and manages to get out still should call 911. He said the temperature of the body drops more than people realize and there is a great threat of hypothermia.
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.