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Environment & Climate Change

The beauty and dangers of Great Lakes ice cover

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Linda Stephan
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Ice, ice everywhere, and nowhere you should walk. This past weekend was particularly cold in much of the Great Lake state, and while it may be tempting to go explore the frozen lakescapes, it can be very dangerous.

Dave Benjamin is the executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit that focuses on safety around open water. According to Benjamin, 2020 was the deadliest year on Lake Michigan since his group started to keep track in 2010. He urged people to be cautious when visiting the Great Lakes during winter.

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Credit Tom Gill / Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
This graphic illustrates the structure of shelf ice and the dangers it presents.

“What we have is a gradual buildup of shelf ice on the shoreline. So, the lake will freeze over or at least the water along the shoreline may freeze over, and then we get wind and waves that will break it up and wash it up on to the shore and as that water washes up, it kind of builds up in layers, almost like in waves.” Benjamin said. “And what can happen is we have moving water under this ice formation and also the way it’s forming gradually with the spraying of the waves and building up, when you go to the beach, you may not know where the beach ends and the water begins.”

This can be dangerous as you might think you’re walking on solid ground, when actually you’re out over the water. Due to the layered nature of shelf ice, even if you’re out over four feet of water, if you were to fall through a thin spot in the ice, you could find yourself trapped in an ice cavern. This is dangerous because, although you may not be fully submerged in the water, you’re unable to get out because the walls of the cavern are ice, meaning they’re incredibly slick and impossible to climb.

These thin spots are a result of “ice volcanoes,” which Benjamin described as being the result of waves along the edge of the ice shelf pushing water up through the structure and spraying out the top. When these volcanoes stop erupting, the opening can freeze over in a thin layer or be covered with snow, which you may not realize until you fall in.

“No ice is safe ice,” Benjamin said. While ice fishers may have charts and augers to test if the ice is thick enough, but Benjamin notes that the only true way to “test it is to put yourself at risk.”

So, what can you do if you fall through ice and find yourself in the near freezing cold water?

“What we advocate is if you’re ever struggling in any body of water is that you flip, float and follow,” Benjamin said. Flip onto your back so that you can float and calm yourself down and conserve your energy. You then follow a safe path out of the water. The following part can be difficult in ice caverns.

Benjamin also highlighted the importance of calming your breathing if you fall into cold water. The body’s response to this sudden shock is to hyperventilate, which is never a good idea. If you’ve simply broken through a spot of ice and you’re level with the surface, he recommended putting your arms out onto the ice and they’ll freeze, sticking yourself in place. Then, kick your legs up so your whole body is level and begin to pull yourself onto the ice, and crawl to safety.

If you see someone fall in, call 911 immediately and do not go out onto the ice, because you may fall in as well.

Stay safe and stay warm, Michiganders.

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott

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