I suspect that the complexity of global climate change is under-appreciated. If you live in a cold climate and I tell you that things will get warmer, you may see this as good news and look forward to a future where you no longer have to get your antifreeze checked and replace your old battery in September in preparation for the bitter cold of winter. But global warming is not the only kind of change happening because of the release of huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, and even with respect to the warming itself, things are much more complex than “it gets warm.” One example of this complexity is to be found in the Minnesota lakes, and in the closely related activity of fishing those lakes.

Minnesota normally gets quite cold, so ice forms on the lakes early, gets thick fast, survives any mid-winter warm spells, and stays solid late in the season. Minnesota normally gets relatively little snow and tends to be windy, so those ice-covered lakes, especially the larger ones, often have large areas where the ice is not covered by very much of the white fluffy stuff. Also, the waters at the time of freezing tend to be cooler than they strictly need to be to form ice; Deep water in the lakes stays cool all summer, so when winter comes the average temperature of the water in many lakes is lower than necessary to see ice formation at the surface.

Combined, these factors support two things:

1) Fish survival in the lakes and 2) Fishermen survival on top of the lakes.

Since the water is cold at the time of freezing, there is more oxygen in some of the lakes than there might otherwise be. Since some of the lake surface is covered with ice but not a thick layer of snow, sunlight gets into the lakes during the winter promoting photosynthesis in the algae living beneath the ice, which enhances oxygen supply. The occasional break-through of ice during the winter, if there is a warm up and sufficient wind, adds additional oxygen.

Meanwhile, if the ice gets thick fast and stays thick, fishermen and women can ice fish early, often, and well into the season. Many Minnesota lakes sport regular fish contests and festival’s during the winter that depend on this thick ice. Local businesses rely on these events to pay some of the bills during the winter when tourism is generally reduced.

In recent years, there have been some changes owing to global warming. In a warmer world, there will be some years (but certainly not all) where Minnesota experiences much more snow than it used to. This happened last year. Some lakes had so much snow on them last year that the algal activity was stifled and there was less oxygen in the water, and so those lakes experienced large die-offs of fish. Die-offs happen every year in some lakes, but it seems that the extra snow may have caused more fish to die than usual. (see “Winter’s Been Deadly For Minnesota Lakes, Fish“)

The lack of ice early in the year, thin ice during the winter, or early melt can have the opposite effect: More oxygen gets into the water, and thus, the chance of a die off is reduced. The thing is, the pattern of die-offs, when and why they happen, and their extent has changed for a reason that is not directly related to increasing temperature. This is an example of a complex system being altered and producing complex and generally negative results.

In warmer years, such as we are experiencing this winter (and in many previous winters) the lack of thick ice has caused numerous accidents and even fatalities as Minnesotans wandering around on insufficiently frozen lakes, falling in now and then. This, to me, is the ultimate form of Global Warming Denialism. One ignores through ignorance, or willful ignorance, the obvious change in our climate and as a result dies. The number of people falling through ice and drowning in Minnesota seems to be on the rise (though even with increased numbers, the quantities are small enough that a statistical test may be impossible). An excellent indicator of the increased dangers of ice with global warming can be found in what is happening with fishing contests. Contests on lakes in the central part of the state have been repeatedly canceled, and in the case of the Big Lake contests, permanently abandoned as an activity after being canceled several years in a row. In other words, global warming has caused Big Lake to no longer reliably freeze. It’s simply a new reality.

Leech Lake is quiet far north, and has always been a reliable place for ice fishing. However, last year, ice fishing was restricted only to more protected areas of the lake. I’m not sure of the status of the lake this year; Probably worse, as this winter has been much warmer. The annual eelpout festival (eelpout, also known as layer, is a snake-like land-locked cod) is held in mid February. These fish feed only when the water is very cold. And they hardly bit at all last year because the water was too warm. One wonders if the festival will even be held this year. The same thing happened last year at the fish tournament in Alexandria. Not a single fish was caught because conditions were too warm. There were 2,00 anglers, the lake was well stocked, and oxygen levels were sufficient. The Gull Lake Tournament scheduled for January 21st was canceled and moved to February because of thin ice. Although the tournament is officially on, no vehicles will be allowed on the lake because the ice won’t be thick enough.

And just to add insult to injury, the Ice Sculpture context, a center piece of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, is being severely hampered by warm weather, something that pretty much seems to happen every year these days.

Yup, Global Warming is a) Real; b) complex and c) a serious matter.

Comments

  1. #1 Daniel J. Andrews
    January 30, 2012

    We have a number of folks going through the ice up here, but I suspect it is more attributable to overcompensating mechanisms that leads people to take out their snowmachines or big trucks onto obviously unsafe ice (holes in the ice, water flooding parts of the surface).

  2. #2 Umlud
    January 30, 2012

    I am the caretaker of one of the smaller University of Michigan properties – Saginaw Forest – just west of Ann Arbor, MI. There is a small lake/large pond on the property that has witnessed similar trends as to what you have discussed in your piece above. Luckily, there is no ice fishing allowed on the lake, but there are usually a half dozen fishermen that try out the lake every year. This year, though, I am worried about them coming out and falling through the ice (and trying to figure out what to do if I don’t see it happen). Too, I’m worried about some of the winter ecology classes that come out to sample the lake through the ice. With winter this year seeming to be like a stereotypical college kid – home only for the weekend – I am also worried about how this will negatively affect field courses that are trying to learn about winter lake dynamics.

    Perhaps, though, this fluctuation between deep freezes (like last year’s winter) and constant thaws (like this year has so far been) will become the norm for a while. I suppose, from an observational ecology point of view, this cycle can provide a good source for documenting the consequences of such changes, but (to me at least) this outcome is merely lipstick on a pig.

  3. #3 dean
    January 30, 2012

    We could make the same observations here on the west side of Michigan. I’m already hearing owners of apple orchards worrying that they won’t have a sustained stretch of temps low enough to “set” (as they call it) next year’s crop. I’ll take their word for it as my knowledge of such things ends with saying “hey, there’s an apple tree”.
    The local lakes have very thin ice too, with open spots – no shanties on them. Quite a different view from the usual.

    Unrelated comment: Umlud, Saginaw Forest is a wonderful place for hiking/reflection. I’m sure your job entails a lot of work: many thanks to you and your co-workers.

  4. #4 Mike
    January 30, 2012

    Up here in Winnipeg, Canada, the rivers took forever to freeze and a very limited ice-skating path has finally opened a month late and far shorter than normal. It has now been two years in a row that we’ve not opened the World’s Longest Skating Trail. I would say that skating is part of our Canadian identity and so it would be fair to say that Canadian culture is threatened.

  5. #5 rork
    January 31, 2012

    Escanaba, MI upper peninsula, held the Jig It Ice Fishing Extravaganza. 400 kids and adults joined forces. They caught 1 fish. The 4.5 ounce perch won $3000.

    I’m concerned about the water temperatures in great lakes, but haven’t read anything good recently.

  6. #6 BCoppola
    February 2, 2012

    I live in Southeast Michigan, Metro Detroit area. Around 1980 I decided to get into cross country skiing and bought a nice pair of skis. Then…it seemed like winter stopped being winter. Most years since then have had little of the reliably snowy winters I remember from the 60s and 70s, and unless I went north, the skis often went unused most years.

    I think I saw a graph a few years back that confirmed my impression of the weather for the last 30 years.

    We’ve had a couple of snowy winters the past few years, but this winter is a bust again.

    I’m going to the northern lower Michigan (Pigeon River State Forest) this weekend for the final outing of a winter campling class I’m taking. We’re supposed to snowshoe in and build ‘quinzhees’ (a type of snow shelter) but we’re not sure there will be enough snow.

    FWIW.

  7. #7 Dan-o
    February 2, 2012

    Does this mean that last year we had Global Cooling & this year we flopped to Global Warming in MN? NASA predicts — a decrease that will mean fewer flares and more fleece sweaters. Hmm sounds like the sun’s “Cycle 25,” the next 11-year activity phase, will be one of the weakest in centuries. I have no issues with others expressing their opinion just as long as you understand that others may or will disagree, bring facts and refute your ideas/theories. God Bless.

  8. #8 Wow
    February 2, 2012

    No, it means that global warming ruined the minnesota winter.

    Bless. You’ll learn to read one day.

  9. #9 dean
    February 2, 2012

    “I’m going to the northern lower Michigan (Pigeon River State Forest) this weekend …”

    We spent a couple weekends north of Traverse City last year so the boys could ski/snowboard with friends. They could do that, but cross-country ski trails were in bad shape, and the locals said it was the worst winter for snowmobiling they could remember. Word is more of the same this year.

    “I have no issues with others expressing their opinion just as long as you understand that others may or will disagree, bring facts and refute your ideas/theories.”
    You certainly disagree, but haven’t presented any facts that allow you to “refute” the data.

  10. #10 Katie Martin
    April 2, 2012

    I am a strong believer in the reality of Global Warming and that it is strongly affecting our Earth. I do not understand how there are still people who don’t believe or accept it as true when there is clear evidence around the world. I just watched a documentary about the glaciers in the Arctic and especially in and around Greenland and it was terrifying how quickly the ice is disappearing. It does not surprise me one bit that it is becoming noticeable and negatively affecting things in Wisconsin and other northern US states. Have local authorities been doing a lot recently to protect people from falling through the ice since it has become a larger hazard?

  11. #11 Mark Zachman
    Farmington
    January 9, 2013

    Climate change, the euphemism the National Weather Service uses for global warming, is a reality and sadly, it’s here to stay. Anyone over the age of 35 who resides in Minnesota can’t deny the fact that our winters have changed drastically. Granted the winters of the 70’s and 80’s were for the most part, well above normal in terms of snow, winter temperatures have become significantly warmer over the past 15 years. The large arctic outbreaks with sub-zero weather appear to have literally vanished. I can recall countless times, temperatures sinking to between -15 and -30 in Minneapolis between 1975 and 1996. I can’t recall the last time we had a severe arctic outbreak, which is supposed to be fairly common in Minnesota during the winter. We are also facing severe drought conditions over the entire state. It’s impossible to ignore these climate *changes* Not that I miss the bone numbing blasts of air from Canada but the change should be at the very least, should be disconcerting.

    We did have quite a bit of snow in 2010/2011 but still, it wasn’t an unusually cold winter, I don’t recall any major arctic outbreaks. For the most part, temperatures were normal. That being said, I honestly don’t even remember a cold winter over the last 15 years. The last one I recall was 1995/1996.

    I believe pollution in China plays a big role. It’s already been proven that it’s affecting the climate of the west coast. If they are feeling it, so are we because almost all of our major weather systems originate from the Pacific. Not only are our winters getting warmer, our summers are getting hotter. There is no way to ascertain the damage that’s been done to our climate or the scope of it. Time will tell and unfortunately, I believe it will get much worse. 2012 was the warmest year ever in the US and tied for the warmest and one of the driest in Minnesota. This wouldn’t be cause for concern but these records are constantly being broken all over the US. These changes are also causing super storms like Sandy, probably due to the oceans warming to the point where energy is readily available much farther north that it’s supposed to be.