Madison Lakes Now Ice-Free, Open for Spring

Another year, another ice-off for Madison’s lakes. Yesterday, the Wisconsin State Climatology office – specifically Ed Hopkins (you should read this great write-up in the Wisconsin State Journal) – officially declared the surface of Lake Mendota to be more open water than solid ice – so the date of March 22nd, 2020 will go down as the newest entry in our 150+ years of records.

In keeping with the trends we’ve seen in the last few decades, these ice-off events are early compared to historic averages. For example, the median opening date for Lake Mendota is almost exactly two weeks away, on April 4th. Lake Monona and Lake Wingra also opened roughly two weeks before their averages on March 20th and March 12th, respectively. This early thaw continues the trend of shrinking winter ice cover. Since our lakes are freezing later and thawing sooner, we’re getting fewer and fewer days of nice, solid ice to get out on in the winter.

This year, Lake Mendota spent 70 days ice covered, which is far below the median duration of 104. That’s a full month less of ice and a troublesome trend. We’ve written about this before, lamenting the loss of “something magical” as Midwestern winters warm and alter the sense of place of communities around once-frozen shores .

A northerly wind has ice stacked up on Lake Mendota’s shore, while open water shimmers in the distance.

And, as CFL director emeritus, John Magnuson, told the State Journal, this change in ice cover could end up having profound ecological impacts if the trend continues to its extreme. “We don’t go very far down this road before we can’t separate what happens during the summer period from what happens in the winter,” he said.

Of course, as we’re all hunkered down during the current coronavirus pandemic, it might be hard for many of us to get too worked up about a shorter winter. For many folks, Spring can’t come soon enough.

A warmer outdoor experience will surely be a welcome reprieve for cabin fever. For boaters, the social distancing guidelines will even be easy to follow (anyone in a boat fishing closer than six feet from you is asking for trouble even in pandemic-free times). But for those of us stuck on shore, just make sure to enjoy the ice-free view in appropriately staggered spacing!