Ice cover on the Great Lakes is at a near-record low (<10% coverage vs. 80% in 2015), thanks to the January thaw. This has been the warmest Superior has been in 16 years, and it has contributed to some of the lowest lake ice coverage on record for this winter season.
As of January 30, the lake ice was only slightly below where it was just one year ago, but less than a third of what was on the water back in 2015.
So what does this mean for summer?
This could mean another year of low water levels across the Great Lakes as well as the inland lakes, due to the effects of evaporation.
Evaporation from the lakes is driven by the difference in the temperatures of the water and the air. The higher the water temperature, compared to the air, the greater the amount of evaporation there will be from the lakes.
During a cold winter, with the lakes frozen over, this halts evaporation by putting a barrier of ice between the water and air. Lake effect snows are rare, at best, and even in spring and summer, after the lakes melt, the greater amount of ice results in lower water temperatures, which keeps evaporation to a minimum. Thus, it doesn’t take much rainfall over the lakes to keep water levels higher.
During a warm winter, where lakes are mostly ice-free, these warm lakes with less ice coverage directly result in more evaporation. This contributes to repeated lake effect snowfall events during the colder months, which begin simply by having the winds align properly over the lake surface. Later, as conditions warm during spring and into summer, the lake temperatures tend to stay a step ahead of the air temperatures, which results in stronger evaporation from water surfaces in the warmer months too.
For more information:
The following links provide information on ice coverage currently as well as in comparison to previous years.
Thunder Bay fish and wildlife habitat has been degraded by urban and industrial waterfront development. Lake Superior lake bottom and shoreline habitat, as well as habitat along rivers and streams flowing to Superior, has been lost as a result. Remedial Action Plan habitat restoration projects have assisted in restoring spawning areas and wetland conditions in several harbour locations with the goal of creating productive conditions nurturing fish and aquatic life as well as bird and animal populations. Despite these efforts there is still room for habitat enhancement balancing harbour environmental and economic considerations.
Lake bottom substrate, or bottom type, is a critical component of fish habitat, also influencing spawning activity. At the February 8th meeting, Rick Kiriluk of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), outlined work to quantify the various types of lake bottom material in Thunder Bay on Lake Superior.
Rick began his presentation by stating that the type of lake bottom material, be it sand, fine silt, gravel, cobble, or other material, is directly related to the quality of fish habitat. He said that data collected during the substrate survey would be developed into a habitat classification incorporating information about the quality of fish habitat, suitability for various species, etc.
Rick said that while he was presenting information about substrate mapping in Thunder Bay on behalf of ECCC, it was actually Hans Biberhofer, also of ECCC, who had carried out the work. He said that Hans had carried out such work in all of the Great Lakes, over many years.
Survey work was completed in three areas – Thunder Bay Harbour proper, within the breakwall; Thunder Bay west shore, from approximately Chippewa to Sturgeon Bay, in about a 2 km. wide strip out from the shore; also Welcome Islands, taking in an area around the entire island group and stretching out approximately 500 m. from the shore of the islands.
Data collection included both soundings, to get an accurate picture of bathymetry, or depths and bottom contour, as well as underwater video at a sub-set of sites. Soundings were run in a series of “lines.” Underwater video was utilized to obtain an accurate identification of bottom type. Using the Welcome Islands as an example, the following activities were used in the data collection process:
- 84.2 km. of sounding lines
- 192,804 soundings
- 28 underwater video sites.
Data collection resulted in quantification of Thunder Bay bottom type over about 26 square kilometers. Rick cautioned that while video classification of bottom type was very accurate at specific video sites, conditions across broader areas were extrapolated. The area surrounding the Welcome Islands, for example, was determined to have a preponderance of sand (well defined sand waves), followed by fine grained material and also substantial amounts of cobble. All of this data is valuable as it relates to habitat for various fish species. Rick concluded by saying that collected data would be compiled into a substrate classification for Thunder Bay.
Rick was asked several questions at the meeting, those questions to which he did not have an immediate reponse are answered below:
1) Why the absence of data for the North Harbour Contamination area?
This area was not included in the workplan as this area is contaminated with mercury which has greatly compromised the fish habitat quality. Substrates in that area have been characterized in other studies/reports (R.F. Foster Dec 2012 – Thunder Bay North Harbour Fish Community and Habitat Synthesis).
2) Why the absence of data in nearshore areas, specifically boat ships, channels and basins?
This information was not included in the workplan as these areas were considered to be highly degraded fish habitat due to dredging, infilling, shoreline hardening. The objective of the project was to assess the quantity of fish habitat (through substrate classification and subsequent habitat classification) that is more closely linked or typical of a lesser degraded condition and more conducive to supporting healthy fish populations.
3) There was mention of substrate mapping in the St Marys River.
The work in that area was specific to contaminated sediments. The loss of fish habitat BUI in the St Marys AOC is mainly loss of rapids and wetland habitat. The substrate/habitat classification approach would not be applicable.
The February 8th meeting was attended by about 25 people, including several members of the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists (TBFN), as well as a representative of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). In addition to fish habitat, meeting participants discussed ideas such as rehabilitation of wetlands along Thunder Bay’s harbour shore. Some areas have been damaged by industrial activity, including encroachment by debris and sawdust, or even infilled to gain additional industrial property. The Public Advisory Committee is working to formulate next steps to improve harbour habitat. Input from members of the TBFN and the NCC representative was highly appreciated by Public Advisory Committee members.
Presentation by Rick Kiriluk of Environment and Climate Change Canada
Photos of substrate mapping work being carried out in Thunder Bay by Hans Biberhofer and crew.
Based on data collection carried out by Lakehead University Geography and the Environment student Nathan Wilson, assisted by Natural Resources Management students Brent Straughan and Sara Cockhill, the online tool includes information about 50 streams, including the following parameters:
- mapped stream location
- graphic definition of the stream’s sub-watershed
- water temperature
- dissolved oxygen
- substrate, whether sand, fine silt, gravel, cobble, etc.
- vegetative cover
- photos of specific sites
Student data collection was directed by Lakehead University Geography and Environmental Science Department Chair Dr. Rob Stewart, department technician Jason Freeburn, as well as Reg Nelson, Geospatial Data Centre Technician.
Data is being used to identify and prioritize streams which might benefit from rehabilitation work. Identifying barriers to fish passage, which in turn negatively impact fish populations, is a key project objective. Barriers to fish passage include culverts placed up to several feet above the stream bed, precluding passage of fish to productive fish habitat and spawning areas, scars from construction projects long since completed, and man made structures which may have the unintended consequence of blocking fish passage.
Culverts placed under the railway are a primary example of structures known to have blocked fish passage. These culverts are often just several hundred meters upstream from Lake Superior, some having blocked passage to vast areas of productive fish habitat since the late eighteen hundreds.
A workshop to present the new mapping tool was held at Lakehead University on February 13th and was attended by Lakehead University students and staff, representatives of the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the Lakehead Region Conservation Authority, the Public Advisory Committee to the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan, or harbour cleanup plan, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the North Shore Steelhead Association, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Thunder Bay District Stewardship Council.
This Lakehead University data collection project comes about through cooperation with people who care deeply about the environmental health of Lake Superior streams and the fishery. This passion was first turned into action by Thunder Bay Stewardship Council members Tom Kleinboeck and Frank Edgson, whose efforts were fundamental to completing the project. A growing record of solid action, projects and volunteer participation aimed at improving the environmental health of area streams has been built upon Tom and Frank’s original vision. Cooperation with Lakehead University has been beneficial to students and streams alike.
Superior Streams is supported by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry through funds of the Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem (COA), also by Lakehead University.
“On behalf of the Province of Ontario, we are completely committed to working with all partners to identify all potentially contaminated sites, and to creating and implementing a comprehensive remediation action plan for the English Wabigoon River.”
These are the words of the Province of Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, David Zimmer, contained in a February 13th statement from the province. The statement asserts that, “Mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.” The English Wabigoon River system is located in Northwestern Ontario, some 400 km., or 250 miles, northwest of Thunder Bay.
Attesting to the importance of the statement is the fact that the province’s Premier Kathleen Wynne, along with Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray, met personally with Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister and David Suzuki just days earlier on February 10th.
Work to clean up mercury is related to a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario which is situated on the English – Wabigoon River system. A nearby chlor-alkali production facility utilizing mercury and producing chlorine and sodium hydroxide for bleaching pulp used in paper production began operating there in the early sixties. The facility is no longer operating although production at the mill, now owned by Domtar Inc., continues. Wastewater containing mercury from the chlor-alkali plant ended up in the English – Wabigoon River system and contamination spread downstream. Mercury entered the food chain and accumulated in fish. Consumption of fish is a major pathway for transfer of mercury to humans.
Minister Zimmer’s statement lays out the provincial commitment in the following terms:
- new information about potential mercury on the site of the Domtar mill in nearby Dryden, Ontario will be acted upon through, “a full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment on the entire mill site…to be sure unequivocally if the site is an ongoing source of mercury, and if it is…to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river.”
- a two year process designed by Dr. John Rudd and funded by the province is underway to determine the extent of mercury contamination in the river and the most appropriate methods for cleanup of specific areas, including methods such as capping and enhanced natural recovery
- regular meetings will be held with First Nations and updates will be provided to the public.
The English – Wabigoon River system is not located within the Lake Superior watershed but the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change plays an active role in addressing Lake Superior sites contaminated with mercury. At Peninsula Harbour, in the town of Marathon, Ontario, the province required Ball Packaging, a former owner of the chlor-alkali plant once located there, to contribute to cleanup of harbour mercury contamination. The provincial and federal governments were also participants in completing the $7 million “thin-layer” capping project in 2012.
This capping method placed 15 to 20 centimetres of clean sand on top of the most contaminated sediment. The project was the first of its kind to be undertaken in the Canadian Great Lakes and a video outlining project construction and produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada can be viewed here. Thin-layer capping creates clean fish habitat, stops the spread of contaminated sediment, and reduces risk to fish, fish-eating birds, mammals and people.
Another site contaminated with mercury lies within the waters of Thunder Bay Harbour. Some 350,000 cubic meters of contaminated material are located within the confines of the harbour breakwall adjacent to the mouth of the Current River. The province, federal government and an industrial partner have cooperated to develop various options for cleanup but specific remediation plans have not been finalized.
The International Joint Commission will be holding meetings in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to hear how the public views progress in work to clean up the Great Lakes. Meeting location, date and time is as follows:
March 2, 2017 – Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Delta Waterfront Hotel, Algoma East Ballroom
208 St. Mary’s River Drive
6:00pm – 9:00pm
The document also suggests action on several challenges, such as:
- greater focus on drinkability, swimability and fishability
- identification of new chemicals of concern and strategies to address them
- insufficient engagement with the public in development and implementation of Lakewide Action and Management Plans.
Meetings will also be held in Detroit, Sarnia, Toledo, Buffalo, and St. Catherines.
The St. Marys River is one of the several environmental Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes. Industrial and municipal discharges as well as combined sewer overflows caused impairments of water quality, sediment and biota. Priorities for the Area of Concern include restoration of tributaries, cleanup of the Cannelton Tannery Superfund site, sea lamprey control, elimination of combined sewer overflows and remediation of contaminated sediments.
Lots of wind but a bit gusty…wait for it! (33″ clip).
Ice boating on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. Pie Island in the distance. January, 2017.
Ice boating has a long history on Lake Superior, both in Canada and USA. In the Thunder Bay area ice boats have been around for at least 60 years, probably longer. On both sides of the big lake, the boats are used wherever and whenever ice is good. Good ice can be found on both the big lake and inland lakes. Iceboats are easily broken down and transported and ice boaters commonly travel regionally in search of good ice. In the Thunder Bay area, Whitefish Lake and Loon Lake, as well as other lakes, have seen many visits by ice boaters.
Snow is the enemy of ice boats so ice must be free of snow to get up to speed. Clear, hard, smooth, thick ice is best but bumpy, even pebbled ice will do. Calm is the other enemy. Iceboats need wind and they like plenty of it. Speeds of 70 km./hr. (43 mph) are routine with good wind and good ice, utilizing a standard iceboat with no modifications. The boat is really starting to move at 90 km./hr (55 mph), with the same standard boat.
Many of the early boats in the Thunder Bay area were home built projects utilizing fairly heavy materials and without the excellent sails of more recent years. Most of these boats were about 12 ft. in length with 16 ft. masts. Modern boats have a triangular skate, or blade arrangement, with one blade at the front and two towards the back, widely spaced for stability, about 8 ft. apart. The forward of the three skates does the steering, controlled by a “tiller” or steering mechanism, in the central seating portion of the boat.
The most common iceboat is the “DN.” The boat is named after the “Detroit News” newspaper which in 1937 sponsored a competition to design a boat which could be easily and economically built at home. Thousands of these boats have been built around the world, including locations like Duluth and Thunder Bay. A larger, faster boat is the Skeeter, which is about 20 ft. in length with a slightly longer runner board separating the rear ice blades and stabilizing the boat in high winds. The Skeeter has a mast of about 24 feet and very sleek, modern sails. These boats are seriously fast, topping out at over 100 miles/hr. (we won’t convert that to km./hr – it is extremely fast).
One or two boats present in the Thunder Bay area were huge, “old school” stern steering models, such as those used on the Hudson River in New York state starting in the late eighteen hundreds. Many of these boats were well in excess of 20 ft. in length. The triangular arrangement of the runner blades on these older boats was reversed, one steering blade at the stern on a pivot for steerinf, and two runner blades at the front, widely separated with a runner plank. Boats on the Hudson River were know to race high speed steam trains when conditions were good – and win.
What’s it like to sail in an iceboat? Like nothing you’ve ever tried before. The acceleration is the most amazing thing. Think automatic, instant acceleration, something like an electric vehicle, with no “lag.” When the boat really gets going, especially in gusty conditions, the rear, windward skate often picks up so that the iceboater is literally levitating in the air, all at high forward speed. A well controlled boat is flat on the ice, with all three sharp skates providing purchase and ensuring forward movement, as opposed to sideways slippage due to wind pressure on the sail. A knowledge of sailing’s fundamental principles and dynamics is obviously a requirement on anything but very light wind days.
Many people learned iceboating as kids, coming along for the ride tucked into the arms and thick warm coat of a parent steering and controlling the boat. As kids learned the fundamentals of sailing on water during the summer, at much slower speeds, they were then able to transition to iceboating.
Readers may have noticed other articles about ice boating in the media recently. A prolonged January warm spell of over two weeks in the Lake Superior region led to a surge in iceboat use. Snow on ice surfaces melted away making for clear sailing. When this warm weather was followed by a cold snap, things really started heating up, with excellent, smooth, hard ice. January’s warm weather may have been unusual but it remains to be seen how climate will affect ice boating in future years.
Oh, one last thing. The information above may not have noted that iceboats have no brakes. Imagine being on blades, on ice, with no brakes, traveling at speeds over 70 km. an hour. How do you stop? There is only one way. Iceboats need space. Plenty of it. To stop, the boats are turned into the wind, gliding for considerable distance as the wind “feathers” past the sail. The boat will eventually glide to a stop, or stall. This 18″ clip, also taken on Lake Superior in January, 2017, shows a boat being turned into the wind and coasting to a stop.
Special thanks to Britt Bailey for the video clips and photos of her ice boating cousin Julia Bailey.
Interested in languages and culture? One language, and indeed a culture, encompasses all of Lake Superior, on both the Canadian and U.S. sides. This culture pre-dates colonization and is Ojibwe.
The “Decolonial Atlas” is a website which maps the Great Lakes region, with all locations written in Ojibwe. Additionally, the site provides a list of Great Lakes locations, in Ojibwe, along with a transcription of what these names mean. You’ll likely find your own town, or at least an area landmark on the list. The interesting part is the way the Ojibwe names incorporate the nature of the terrain, the rivers, lakes and even the tree species native to a given area. A few of the locations included on the site follow below:
- The Great Lakes – the five freshwater seas – Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin
- Lake Superior – Anishinaabewi-gichigami – Anishinaabe’s Sea
- Lake Nipigon, Ontario – Dog Waters Lake – Animbiigoo-zaaga’igan
- Detroit, Michigan – at the curved shores – Waawiyaataanong
- Sault Ste. Marie – at the cascades – Baawitigong
- Thunder Bay, Ontario – at the Thunderbird Bay – Binesii-wiikwedong
- The St. Louis River – sea river – Gichigami-ziibi
- Isle Royale – blueberrying – Miinoong
- Duluth, Minnesota – at the little portage – Onigamiinsing
- Houghton/Hancock, Michigan – at the foot portage – Gakiiwe-onigamiing.