Will Madison’s Lakes Get Ice for Christmas?

If you’ve been checking the forecast for Christmas Eve here in Wisconsin, you’ve no doubt seen that a bit of a cold snap is on its way. While the past several days have hovered just above freezing, we’re about to see single digit lows and highs in the teens for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning – and that means the gift of lake ice may be in our future.

In fact the lakes look, well, ready to freeze. If you’ve been thinking that the waves look sluggish and the water thicker, it turns out that you’re not seeing this – water can, indeed look and act “cold” as it approaches its freezing point. You can even watch water get colder on our Lake Mendota webcam – we promise it’s more fun that watching the grass grow!

But, as we’ve written before on this blog, temperature isn’t the only ingredient needed to get our lakes their nice winter’s cap each year. Wind plays a big role in lake ice formation – or, more accurately, the absence of wind does.

It could be twenty below but, if that involves a 20 mile per hour wind, the only ice that will form on our lakes will be along the downwind shoreline. So what to we make of the projections for single-digit Christmas Eve temps and a 10 mph northwest wind? It seems unlikely that a full cap of ice is coming, but a drop off in winds for only a hour can really start building ice this time of year.

A flock of geese floats on Lake Mendota at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the edges of the lakeshore begin to freeze on Dec. 10, 2009. ©UW-Madison University Communications
Photo: Bryce Richter

If we did get the “ice on” in 2020, it would only be the third December freeze date in the last 10 years, reflecting a trend towards later freeze dates and earlier thaws thanks to our warming climate. And we’d be one year closer to a future that seems ever more likely to include years where our lakes simply don’t freeze at all.

But we’re not there yet. And, in fact, here at the CFL, our colleagues up north have been bragging about the amazing ice they’re seeing this winter. One perk to the lack of snow near Trout Lake Station is the smooth, crystal clear ice they’re currently skating on.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll start to see what winter has in store for our Madison lakes and, fingers crossed, it’s a magical one. Just make sure that, if you do venture out on the ice, to do so safely. Our warmer winters and springs are making the freeze and thaw transitions more dangerous.


For more on lake ice safety, see this WDNR article.

Feature Image – Sunset skating on Minocqua Lake, WI. Photo: Carol Warden