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Great Lakes ice cover is becoming more precarious. That’s a problem for the Midwest’s favourite winter pursuits

Ice cover has been declining by about 5 per cent every decade across the Great Lakes

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Friday 05 March 2021 21:22 GMT
Huge ice sheet breaks off Lake Michigan shoreline

Captain Tony Muscioni spends his retirement rising before dawn on bitterly cold winter mornings to lead fellow ice fishing enthusiasts in search of Lake Erie’s trophy walleye.

“The lake here has got the biggest walleye that you can catch,” he told The Independent this week. “Those 15-18 inch [fish], I put back. I tell my customers to be patient, we’ll get the bigger fish and 75 per cent of the time we do. That’s my job and it’s a lot of fun.”

His company, Air1 Airboats, takes charters from Ohio’s West Catawba State Park, in a vessel similar to those which skim over the Florida everglades, only with a reinforced hull to protect from ice shards. Once on the frozen lake, he helps fishermen set up wind-blocking shanties then drill holes, drop the bait and wait for a catch.

But conditions this winter, like several before it, have hampered his beloved pastime. “We’ve had more ice than in the last two or three years but it has been real sketchy,” he said. “The ice is all broken up now and warm weather has blown a lot of it out. My job is to get people fishing but if I can’t get locations, I won’t go. I don’t take customers’ money just to take them for a boat ride.”

While he says being on the ice air boat “is the safest way” across frozen expanses, the avid fisherman won’t take risks.

“Some of the guys were out there with four-wheelers and snowmobiles, and going through the ice. You don’t want to do that out there, it’s deep water and very dangerous,” the captain added.

His observations were echoed by fishing veterans in other parts of the Great Lakes.

Captain Tony Muscioni with a walleye, caught during an ice fishing expedition on Lake Erie (Courtesy of Captain Tony Muscioni)

“The winters of 30 years are gone, ice fishing continues but the season may start later and end earlier. Each year is a little different,” the Lake Huron Fishing Club in Southampton, Ontario toldThe Independent in an email.

Coverage varies significantly from year-to-year, and from lake-to-lake. But overall trends show that ice extent is declining and less reliable across the five Great Lakes – Erie, Ontario, Superior, Michigan and Huron. Combined they hold one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and stretch from the province of Ontario in Canada across Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, totalling a surface area about the size of the UK.

This winter, the lakes were forecast to have 30 per cent ice coverage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, far below the average of 53 per cent. Ice cover has been declining about 5 per cent every decade since NOAA began keeping records in the early Seventies.

Winter pursuits on ice are integral to the identities of communities across the US and Canada. In the Great Lakes, and thousands of smaller inland lakes, ice fishing is popular but pursuits also include snowmobiling, dog sledding, hockey and skating.

Research by non-profit, Protect Our Winters, found nearly 24 million Americans took part in winter sports in the 2015-16 season with 191,000 jobs created by skiing and snowmobiling, adding $11.3bn to the economy. In the same year, around 1.8 million Americans went ice fishing, and 3.5 million went snowshoeing. A single ice fishing tournament can plow hundreds of thousands of dollars into small towns.

A 2017 study discovered that temperatures had risen dramatically in some of the US’s most popular winter sport enclaves. Burlington, Vermont, near to the ski resorts of Killington and Stowe, has warmed about 7F since 1970. Winters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where ice fishing is popular, warmed by about 5.7F.

Warmer air temperatures have delayed the opening of winter ice roads, used by indigenous communities in Canada, according to a 2019 report, which are used to transport goods and ferry children to school. The researchers also noted that indigenous peoples use ice-covered lakes for subsistence activities – ice fishing but also as hunting routes and to access trapping sites.

A wide-ranging assessment, conducted pro-bono by a team of scientists across the Midwest in 2019, found that the Great Lakes region is heating faster than the rest of the US, aside from Alaska. Lake Superior is heating faster than all other large lakes on the planet, except Sweden’s Lake Fräcksjön.

Dr Don Weubbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois and former assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama administration, co-authored the study.

“The planet is continuing to warm, and that includes the Great Lakes,” he toldThe Independent. “Alaska is warming at an even faster rate, and the Arctic is the fastest rate of anywhere in the world.

“We tend to find the most significant temperature changes occur in the US at the more northern parts. The fact that the northern continental US and southern Canada are warming at a faster rate is exactly what we would expect.”

The research team said that it remained uncertain how climate change will affect water levels in the Great Lakes, which hold 90 per cent of the country’s freshwater and provide drinking water for 40 million people. The study found that warmer temperatures will produce less ice cover, boost evaporation and push water levels down. But levels could rise in years with especially heavy precipitation and temporary deep freezes caused by southward creep of frigid polar air.

Some scientists suspect that global heating could be at work in other extreme events such the “Arctic outbreak” last month. The deep freeze, which brought record subzero temperatures to Texas and Oklahoma and knocked millions off the power grid, also led to Lake Erie’s ice cover going from 3 per cent to 86 per cent within days.

Great Lakes ice cover thinning and melting faster

Retired weather expert Tom Niziol noted in The Washington Post that the “flash freeze” created a relatively thin later of ice and urged people to keep updated on conditions and heed warnings.

Warming winters in typically ice-covered regions has been linked to an increase in winter drownings, found a study last year published in the journal PLOS One.

In the first large-scale assessment of its kind, the researchers found that “the largest number of drownings occurred when winter air temperatures were between -5C and 0C, when ice is less stable, and also in regions where indigenous traditions and livelihood require extended time on ice”.

Rates of drowning were greatest late in the winter season when ice stability declined, and children and adults up to the age of 39 were at highest risk.

This February, a 16-year-old girl drowned after she and her brother, 13, fell through the ice in Rocky Fork State Park, Ohio. The teen was able to get her brother out of the water before she died. A police officer who responded to the scene also died after he suffered an apparent heart attack and fell into the water, according to AP.

A week earlier, a 22-year-old man fell though the ice and became trapped below after walking on the frozen surface of Lake Champlain on the waterfront in Burlington, Vermont. 

There’s also risk of becoming stranded if pieces of ice sheets, known as ice floes, break off. Ten people, including three children, were rescued on two separate ice floes in Lake Erie last month. In Ontario, emergency crews were able to save a pair of hikers stranded on a piece of ice drifting on Georgian Bay off Lake Huron after they became lost on a trail.

And some 26 people fishing on Lake Superior were rescued by the Duluth Fire Department when an ice floe broke away from the Minnesota shoreline, stranding them in frigid weather. None were injured after crews managed to bring the anglers to shore a few at a time by boat.

At the end of February, a vast ice sheet detached from the shoreline of Lake Michigan in Chicago, following a near-record breaking nine consecutive days of snowfall in the Windy City.

The Chicago Police Marine Unit pleaded with people to stay off the lake, tweeting: “Shelf Ice is extremely dangerous.... With ice pushed on shore it is nearly impossible to know where land ends and water below ice begins Please STAY OFF.”

AP contributed to this report

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