Consequences of Thin Ice
Posted on: February 11, 2020
Photo By Ed Lee

This year has had reduced ice levels on Lake Superior. Ice activity has been limited due to the presence and thickness of the ice. The bays of Lake Superior have had ice formations such as the Harbour in Thunder Bay, but the majority of the lake lacks the substantial ice coverage.

Thin ice in addition to being risky for traveling on also has environmental impacts, for example, reduced ice cover results in greater wave action which can enhance coastal erosion along shorelines, beaches, and bluffs. The lower ice coverage can also result in increased warming during the summer months. Reduced ice cover can also increase extreme events such as lake effect snow due to the wind blowing over the open water. Ice protects ecosystems and when ice levels are low ecosystems are more vulnerable. Nutrient loads are higher when ice cover is low which can promote algal blooms. There are good algal blooms that feed fish and provide to the ecosystem, however, these only occur when ice cover is high. Low ice levels reduce good algal blooms and promote the bad ones. The Great Lakes are resilient but protecting our waters and our winters are important to ecosystem functioning and to Canada’s identity.

Go out and enjoy the winter, but you should always use caution when partaking in ice recreation. Special attention must be made during low ice years such as this one.

Not all ice is the same. The colour of ice can generally indicate the strength of the ice. Blue ice is the strongest. White opaque or snow ice is only half as strong as blue ice. Grey ice is unsafe because it indicates the presence of water.

The thickness of the ice depends on the activity for the ice. If you are planning to skate alone the ice needs to be 15cm thick. If you are planning on skating in a group or play a game the thickness should increase to 20cm. When traveling by snowmobile the ice thickness should be at least 25cm. These suggestions apply for blue ice and should be doubled for white-opaque ice.

If you plan on going out on the ice, make sure you:

  • Check the ice conditions before heading out
  • Let others know where you are going and when you plan to return
  • Make sure to wear appropriate clothing (warm and brightly coloured) and carry proper gear (rope, ice picks, and a flotation device)
  • Make sure to go out with other people
  • Be aware of your surroundings as ice conditions can change
  • Get warm and dry as soon as possible

Hopefully, the conditions are safe, and your activities go as planned, but in case you fall in, make sure to practice the following:

  • Call for help
  • Take deep breaths and remain calm
  • Orient yourself towards the shore since ice is thicker nearshore
  • Reach on to broken ice while kicking your legs to get yourself horizontal
  • Once you are back on the ice, roll to evenly displace your weight in the direction of the shore or away from the open water

If you are with someone who falls in the water practice the following:

  • Call for help
  • Try to rescue them from shore using a long branch or pole
  • If you are on the ice, wear a PDF and carry your rescue tool (pole, branch, rope)
  • Get low to the surface and lay down and slowly crawl towards the break
  • Stay low while you throw the rescue device and get the person to kick their legs to help get themselves up
  • Get the person safe and dry onshore

The winter offers many opportunities but remember, to be safe and always have a plan to expect the unexpected.

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