Five Winter Wonders at the Great Lakes

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Have you ever wondered what happens when Winter descends upon the Great Lakes? Here are five interesting tid-bits that will have you reaching for an afghan and mug of hot cocoa.

Shoreline Ice

The main feature of a Great Lakes shoreline in winter is a combination of several types of ice:

ice formed in place by spray and waves, ice drifting in from open water, and ice piled high by waves and wind. It creates massive mountain ranges along the beach—where the highest peaks can exceed 20 feet. Dare to venture out on a cold and windy day to stroll along a Great Lakes beach, you’ll feel as though you’ve just been transported to the arctic. Be careful before stepping on a frozen lake—ice can be thinner than you think or even cracked.

USCGC Mackinaw

The economic viability of the Great Lakes is based on water transportation. During the winter, large sections of the Great Lakes freeze completely over—halting the movement of ships. That’s where one colossal beauty comes into play, the USCGC Mackinaw. At 250-feet long and 3,350 tons, she is the largest United States Coast Guard Ice Cutter on the Great Lakes. Here’s how she does it: when the ship hits ice, the impact causes it to crack, her bow ‘slides’ up onto the ice, pushes it underneath the ship, and crushes it into smaller pieces. The USCGC Mackinaw does more than keep channels and harbors open in winter, she’s also configured to handle a variety of roles including buoy maintenance and environmental spills. Grab your binoculars, maybe you’ll catch a sneak peek of her this winter (she’s home-ported in Cheboygan, Michigan)!

Lake Effect Snow

During the winter, the Great Lakes have a unique effect on weather in the region, known as lake effect snow. This phenomenon occurs when cold air, often originating from Canada, moves across the Great Lakes. As cold air passes over warmer water, top sections of the lake evaporate into the air, which causes clouds to form and grow. When the clouds cool, they dump snow in bands that are much longer than they are wide. The average band is about 10 miles, while the length can range from 30 to 250 miles long—depending on the strength of winds. Did you know that lake effect snowstorms occur in only three places in the world? The Great Lakes, along the east shore of Hudson Bay, and the west coasts of the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido.

Fish and Ice Fishing

Warm water sinks in very cold freshwater, so fish will descend to the bottom of the Great Lakes during the winter. Fish are cold-blooded, which means that their body temperatures vary with the surrounding temperature. During winter, fish go into a sort-of “resting state” where their hearts slow down, they become less active, and their needs for food and oxygen decrease. They find little pockets out of the way of fast moving water where they can stay still and conserve energy. That’s why when you go ice fishing, you need a long line, a slow, colorful lure, warm clothes…and lots of patience!

Winter Surfing

The Great Lakes have become popular for winter surfing over the last decade. Winter and early spring storms produce large waves that make it prime for surfing. But catching these waves isn’t so simple. The Great Lakes have storm fronts that can roll in quickly, so winter surfers wear a meteorologist’s hat. They use wind and wave maps to stay in tune with the forecast and lake conditions—these weather patterns determine the size, height, and frequency of waves. In the Chicago area alone, it is estimated there are close to a thousand people riding waves in the winter on the Great Lakes. Obviously, there are real dangers to winter surfing. Not only is there a risk of hypothermia, but snow, ice, and shelf ice can threaten even the most skilled surfer—so it’s a lot safer spectating rather than surfing.

Brian SchwartzComment