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“Sledding” On Thin Ice

Photo taken at Inlet NY on 4th Lake in the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Adirondack Mts. NY on February 4, 2017. (Courtesy Ray Stagich, The Weather Channel)

According to the website snowmobile.org, there are over 1.2 million snowmobiles registered in the U.S. and the sport has an economic impact of $26 billion annually.  The average age of a snowmobiler is 42 years and about 47% snowmobile from their primary residence or have a vacation home where they keep their sleds.

Every winter we hear stories about someone who has fallen through thin ice, typically in some sort of recreational activity like ice fishing, skating, or snowmobiling.  However, the statistics that have emerged from the past month or two in the Northeast have been staggering.  As of February 15th, 10 snowmobiler fatalities have occurred from drowning in the Northeast in less than 2 months.

I wanted to learn more about why we have had such a dangerous winter season this year so I decided to do some investigating.  Once I began to look at the weather data associated with these deaths, it unveiled a compelling story.

I often discuss the fact that weather catastrophes are a result of several factors, each of which can contribute to the event, but when combined they can turn any situation into a life-threatening scenario.  Below are the locations and dates of the drownings which have occurred.

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As noted in the AP article on the accidents, “Surprisingly, most of the accidents have involved men in their 50s and 60s who have been riding snowmobiles most of their lives”.  So why in the world would seasoned snowmobilers make this kind of mistake?  Well, I think we can connect the dots here and come up with the scenario that put these individuals in a very dangerous situation.

It all centers around an abnormally warm month of January, the time of the winter when the ice grows thick enough to support a lot of weight.  In fact, in places like Glens Falls, NY and Burlington, VT the average temperature for January was around 11 degrees above normal!  Granted, there were enough cold nights to develop some thin ice cover, but it was nowhere cold enough to produce a thick enough ice cover to hold lots of weight, especially on deeper lakes (4 of the 5 lakes where the drownings occurred were over 100 ft. deep).  The figure below shows the average temperature for the month of January for Northeast locations as well as the overall ranking for the past 126 years.  Notice how the entire region had one of the 5 warmest Januaries in 126 years of records.  As noted, January is typically the month to increase the ice thickness with several days of temperatures that go below the zero mark.

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Those exceptionally warm temperatures are Part 1 of this equation for catastrophe.  Part 2 of the equation is snowfall.  Although the average temperature had been very warm for much of January, there were a few periods of weather that was cold enough to develop thin ice cover.  On top of that thin ice cover, there were a few snowfall events that put down fresh coats of white onto those lakes.

As a result, we were setting up a recipe for disaster with a combination of snow cover on top of a thin layer of ice.  If you put yourself in the boots of a person looking at the photo in the beginning of the article, if one were to view a particular lake, they would not know that the ice was much thinner than what we typically would have at this time of the winter.  It may have been an “out of sight – out of mind” formula for disaster.  The lynch pin in this scenario may have been the timing when many of these incidents occurred.  I went back to take a look at the daily temperatures at Burlington, VT, close to several of the deaths, to see how warm/cold it was through the ice-making time frame of January and February.  Something struck me when I plotted the temperatures.  Some of the coldest days occurred when the drownings happened.  So I plotted the drownings onto the temperature graph (see figure below), and 8 of the 10 drownings occurred during a day with very cold temperature.

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This is certainly conjecture, but those individuals who made the decision to cross those lakes were out there on days when the temperatures were very cold.  Could that have skewed their assessment of the thickness of lake ice?

A record warm January resulted in much thinner seasonal ice development on the lakes on the Northeast this winter.  That thin ice was masked by a few bouts of snowfall.  Even though there were days where temperatures dropped well below freezing, that did little to grow the thickness of the snow covered ice and may have led some to believe it was plenty cold to venture out on the ice in machines that weighed several hundreds of pounds.

Official snowmobile trails do not go across lakes.  Snowmobilers go out on those lakes at their own risk.  If you do go off the trail, you can risk getting disoriented quickly and lose track of where you might be.  Sudden snow squalls, as suggested in one of the drowning events, can add to that disorientation.  At night those conditions can be exacerbated.  Each of these drownings were terrible accidents but they were preventable.  It is imperative to know the thickness of the ice before you venture out on it.  In many cases, the ice thickness can change considerably on a body of water due to depth, 4 of the 5 lakes are deeper than 100 ft.  Currents and other factors such as tributaries flowing into the lake can reduce ice cover as well.  Remember, each winter season is different from the past.  Know the conditions before you go out.

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  1. I live in The Green Bay WI area and fully understand how currents can shift on icy lakes. One day my husband and I were out driving on a cold day in late January. He decided to drive out on the Bay of Green Bay, staying within the markers that fisherman use going to their ice shantys to fish. I was really nervous and asked him to please get off the Bay. He did, and about 4 hours later, a van with a man and his son went through the ice close to where we had driven. It wasn’t real deep, they made it out of the water, but lost their van. Regardless, anytime you decide to do something like we did that day, you have to remember what my Dad told me many years ago, on a body of water where ice forms and it “seems” thick enough to drive on it, don’t! Under all that ice is water and water currents continually shift even in the coldest part of the winter. Eventually, the ice will shift and can cause cracks under the surface of the ice and it is doubtful you will see the cracks. You hit a crack, and the next thing to happen is a break in the ice and fresh water will make it to the surface and then later refreeze the ice. I am so thankful my husband listened to me that day as both of our springer spaniels were with us. It could have ended very badly for all of us. I will NEVER drive on the Bay of Green Bay again in the winter! 

    1. Wow, another very interesting story about the dangers of being out on the ice, thank you for sharing that with us !!

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