Ice is Nice: Three Perks to the Polar Vortex

We get it. It is cold. Face (and mind) numbingly cold. But that’s not an “all bad” thing. There’s a lot to like about a real winter. And it begins with ice. Here are three things to celebrate during the winter that brought “polar vortex” into our vocabulary!
1. Ice Caves

Icicle "stalactites" hang from one of Lake Superior's famed "sea" caves. Photo courtesy: UW Superior
Icicle “stalactites” hang from one of Lake Superior’s famed “sea” caves. Photo courtesy: UW Superior

For the first time in 5 years, winter temps have been frigid and consistent enough to form lake ice safe enough to walk out to the caves. This recent blog post from our friends at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute takes us there, courtesy of Marie Zhuikov’s short entry. Or check out this from – full of beautiful pictures. If you live within driving distance of the Apostle Islands, this should really be on your bucket list. Just check the ice conditions first. There’s no quicker way to ruin a hike to the ice caves than turning it into a swim!
2. Ice Fishing
CFL grad student, Zach Lawson, displays his hefty catch pulled form the ice on Monona Bay. Photo courtesy: Zach Lawson
CFL grad student, Zach Lawson, displays his hefty catch pulled form the ice on Monona Bay. Photo courtesy: Zach Lawson

If there’s one group of people who aren’t complaining this year, it’s folks who like to ice fish. The ice cover on our lakes came quickly and froze (relatively) solidly. Now view of the horizon from anywhere on Madison’s isthmus is studded with shanties and anglers as they go after everything from bluegill to perch to muskies. As if that weren’t enough, the sturgeon spearing season is poised for a great year with thick ice and good water clarity on Lake Winnebago. The only downside? Cutting holes through this thick ice is going to be more than some saws can handle!
3. Ice Cover
GreatLakesIce1Of course, not everyone is out on the ice pursuing their favorite winter past time. (Some of us prefer ice in our drinks and a spot near a fireplace). But this current deep-freeze is good news (at least short term) for lake levels all over. Great Lake levels are expected to see a nice rise in 2014 thanks to the double-play ice puts on evaporation. An ice cap keeps water from evaporating in the winter, and longer-lasting ice cover means lakes stay cooler well into the warmer months, cutting down on evaporation time then as well. Thanks to some recent research by CFL, WDNR and USGS scientists, we know that the Great Lakes levels mirror those of northern Wisconsin’s lakes and aquifers, so we can expect 2014 to help raise water levels a little bit all over – all thanks to our sub-zero winter.
What are some of your silver linings to the polar vortex? Share them in the comments below!

14 thoughts on “Ice is Nice: Three Perks to the Polar Vortex”

  1. It’s sort of confusing, but the way it was explained at NALMS 2012, the big lakes don’t evaporate much at all during the summer- the energy is absorbed by the process of raising lake temperatures. The evaporation largely occurs in the fall as the lake sheds both heat and water (sort of like a person sweating) to colder air (causing lake effect snow). So, a predictor of fall/winter water loss is summer temperatures, which in turn are likely to be cooler following a year of full ice.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Eric. I thought it was the summer WATER temps that mattered, and that, especially in big bodies like the Great Lakes, longer ice cover/cold winters mean it takes them longer to warm up and they do so later in the summer, meaning evap. is less in fall/pre-ice winter…

    1. Yes. As with most pernicious invasive species, if you don’t get ’em all, you just don’t get ’em. (See smelt, rainbow). BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate something slowing the invasion, right? Perhaps more time for cities to get action plans in place?

  2. It was -10F this morning, with the sun barely above the horizon, and I saw a beautiful RAINBOW. I’d love to know the science about how it formed!

    1. Thanks Mark. I should’ve specified that it was a photo from December. (The early freeze was much appreciated by our resident anglers) You can trust that we’re well aware of the regs at the CFL!

      1. The fish in the photo is a northern I think 🙂 The text seemed to imply to me that ice fishing for musky is common in the winter (it’s not). 🙂

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