Warmer winters mean less ice and more ice safety

Ice rescue training (Photo courtesy of Zionsville Mayor Tim Haak's office)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Scott Sebert grew up on the ice. The 58-year-old from northwest Indiana has been ice fishing since he was a child. He chats with the people at the local bait shop. He owns multiple shanties that he brings out on the ice. He has an auger and fish finders.

“Sometimes you want to just go out and be by yourself,” Sebert said. “Other times it’s about the camaraderie of being around the guys.”  

Alan Buvelot of Westville, meanwhile, has always loved fishing, but he used to get sad every winter. Then he discovered ice fishing six years ago. “It’s almost a little meditation,” he said. The vibe changes if there’s other people around. “You get to BS for three hours.

“You get to talk about the one that got away, which happens every year.”

The future of our lakes

Activities like ice fishing and skating can only happen for a few months, and thousands of Hoosiers make the most out of it every year. The challenge is staying safe. With warmer winters, ice coverage decreases, and some projections put in question whether future generations can ice fish.

A recent study from Nature Climate Change estimates about 14,800 lakes in the Northern Hemisphere don’t freeze regularly every winter. If temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius, 35,300 lakes won’t freeze regularly. If temperatures rise 8 degrees Celsius, 230,400 lakes won’t freeze regularly. Climate Action Tracker, which makes climate predictions with input from three research organizations, estimates the global temperature will rise more than 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 given current emissions policies.  

“In a warmer climate, you expect to have a shorter amount of time with lakes being frozen,” says Dr. Dan Chavas, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Purdue University. “Eventually if it gets warm enough, you just aren’t going to be cold enough, long enough to freeze over your lake.”

Staying safe

Staying safe on the ice is already crucial. In February, two off-road vehicles went through Heritage Lake in Putnam County. Coatsville 48-year-old Brett Crowder died.

If we continue to have warm winters, safety tips will become even more important. Sebert has been ice fishing for decades, and he hasn’t fallen through once. His lack of ice rescues isn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm. He didn’t get out as much this year because he was working on his house, but he still took his fiance out for her first ice fishing trip. “She had fun,” Sebert said. “I’m never going to give this up. Not until I can’t do it anymore.”

How does Sebert stay safe? He calls his local bait shop to check on the conditions. He brings a drill to check the ice thickness. He doesn’t go out on ice unless it’s four inches thick. Or at least he doesn’t anymore. “I’ve been out there on two and a half or three inches, but that’s a little scary,” he says. “The older you get, the smarter you get.”

Buvelot has a survival suit he wears if it isn’t too warm out. The suits keep anglers warm and provide flotation. When he doesn’t wear the survival suit, he always wears a life vest. He doesn’t care if the life vest looks goofy. He doesn’t care about anyone making fun of him. “I want to come back and fish the next day,” he says. He even brings rope with him in case someone needs to be pulled out of the water.

Even with decades of experience, Sebert always advises to bring any safety equipment you might need.

“I don’t care if anybody laughs at you for it or not,” Sebert said. “You’re there to be safe and have a good time.”

Larger trends

From 1973 to 2010, the Great Lakes ice coverage declined 71 percent according to researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lake Michigan, which sits just above Indiana’s newly minted national park, saw a 77 percent decline. These same researchers found lakes in our area freeze about 6-11 days later and lose ice about 2-13 days earlier than in pre-industrial times.

One extremely cold winter doesn’t mean the planet isn’t warming, just like one unseasonably warm winter doesn’t mean the planet is doomed. Climate change is measured in decades and centuries, not months or years. Individual variations don’t prove a point one way or another.

“It’s still possible that you maybe have winters that are very, very cold that promote an ice-covered lake,” says Chavas. “But that will probably be a punctuation between more frequent warm winters when you don’t have any lakes being frozen at all.”

Rules to know before you go

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources echoes a lot of the safety tactics of Sebert and Buvelot.

“Ice is hard to read,” said DNR Conservation Officer Dave Moss. “You should always test the ice before you go on it.”

File photo

Lake ice needs to be at least four inches thick before going on it. If you want to take snowmobiles and ATVs on the ice, it should be at least five inches thick. A car needs eight inches, and a medium-weight truck needs 10 inches. Make sure you are testing the ice thickness with an auger or drill anywhere you plan to venture. Moss says ice can be thicker in certain places than others, so you should always use extreme caution.

Snow can have a counterintuitive effect.

“The snow actually insulates the ice, and it doesn’t get as cold,” Moss said.

Even if the rest of the lake ice is plenty thick, a snow-covered patch might not be thick enough to sustain your weight. Moss said children and pets, despite being lighter than adults, are still susceptible to falling through because they are less cautious. Keep a close eye on pets and children, and call 911 if they go through the ice. As hard as it might sound, DNR advises against trying to rescue them yourself without the proper equipment.

The path forward

Scientists across the board agree climate change is likely man-made, but they believe we still control our own destiny. In order to keep the temperature from hitting critical levels, we need to commit to certain goals: Continue developing renewable energy; plant trees to soak up carbon emissions; make sustainable buildings.

File photo

“It’s tough for people to change their lives and their habits too much,” Chavas said. “Supporting any sort of policy that promotes the development of green technology is great. We have supports for the solar industry and wind industry that help to promote them, and those have been growing like gangbusters.”

Hoosiers from both sides of the aisle are starting to prioritize the fight for a healthy environment. With more of this commitment, generations of Hoosiers will get to enjoy ice fishing.

Buvelot and Sebert agree ice fishing is gaining popularity. Buvelot recalls an ice fishing derby this year that, despite being a last-minute operation, drew 98 people. He is still a newcomer to the sport compared to Sebert.

“Some people don’t understand it,” Sebert said. “But once you get into it, it’s hard to get away from it.”

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