Ice is complicated. This is the premise with which we begin our project.
Ice cannot be reduced to a binary; the water is not simply frozen or unfrozen, with “slush” as the only grey area in-between. This winter, we will observe the daily, lived drama of the ice of the Great Lake Erie in an urban setting a mere .5 mile from the lakeshore in order to embrace its power, glory, and infinite nuance. Views of the frozen vista will be piped in, in real time, from the western end of the lake starting in December 2017, until June 2018. When we begin, the lake’s water will be rippling, unfrozen. Over the course of months, we will watch the ice form, deepen, melt, crack, and change drastically from day to day. Finally, when spring has come, we will get the break we are all waiting for during the long, dark Cleveland winter: the ice will vanish.
For inspiration, consider the daily notes made by intrepid biologists Thomas Huxley “Hux” Langois and Marina Homes Langlois in their book The Ice of Lake Erie Around South Bass Island, 1936-1964, published by the Ohio State University, College of Biological Sciences, in cooperation with The Center for Lake Erie Area Research and Ohio Sea Grant Program at the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory. (Remember this place, The Stone Lab, as you will be hearing more about it soon).
Winter of 1944-1945
12-1-44; Ice has formed on Squaw Bat and Terwilliger’s Pond. Shore lines have been heavily coated with splash-ice, and there has been pancake ice in bay.
12-15-44; 18°F. Thin ice on bay, and between Peach Point and Rattlesnake Island.
12-16-44; Floes moved in from SW, mashing in between the islands. Snow.
12-17-44; Floes in open lake moving eastwards, but very little open water.
12-18-44; Fishery Bay frozen over. Floes have frozen together, making a continuous ice-cover between islands.
12-19-44; 10F. Ice rough. No open water visible.
12-20-44; Cold, making ice.
12-21-44; Ice free from snow.
12-22-44; Few shanties out on solid ice but ice is rough.
12-26-44; Colder, with snow.
12-30,13-44; Warm rain, with fog.
1-1-45; Heavy snow, blocking island roads.
1,2-3-45; Snow, cold and windy. Ice 5 in. thick.
1-7,8-45; Snow. Ice 6 in. thick.
1-7,9-45; Four in. more snow on ice.
1-9-45; 30F. Deep snow has crusted over.
1-10-45; 10F. Many fishing shanties out on west side.
1-12-45; Warmer, melting the snow.
1-13-45; Meltwater froze during the night. Shanties out toward Rattlesnake and also on east side of South Bass Island.
1-16-45; Snow cover deep on ice.
1-17,22-45; Ice about 8 in. thick, covered with snow. Ice continuous to east of Kelleys Island.
2-1. 8-45; Ice about 18 in. thick and snow-covered. Cars crossing to mainland.
2-9,14-45; More snow, with constantly freezing temperatures.
2-15-45; Warmer, covering the ice with slush and meltwater.
2-16-45; Meltwater froze overnight.
2-17-45; Snow nearly all melted away from ice surface.
2-18,21-45; No snow left on ice. Ice about 18 in. thick, of which the upper 2 in. are opaque. Surface smooth.
2-22-45; Colder, with more snow.
2-23-45; Wind moved ice offshore on NE side, leaving some open water off Ballast Island and Buckeye Point.
2-24-45; Ice slushy, with soft surface.
2-25-45; Ice crystalline for first time this winter.
2-26-45; Warm, making slush and meltwater on ice, with heavy fog.
2-27-45; Colder, with snow. Open water over Peach Point reef.
2-28-45; NE wind and colder. Ice hard and clear.
3-1-45; Open water over Peach Point reef larger.
3-2-45; South Passage open, with open water westward for several miles.
3-5-45; Open water on east side of South Bass Island.
3-6-45; Snow, 2in. South Passage full of floes.
3-7-45; Pressure cracks numerous. Open water between South Bass and Middle Bass Islands. Ice 8 in. thick, but rotten and crystalline. No fishing.
3-8-45; Few fisherman near shore until noon.
3-9, 12-45; Ice rotten. Open water between Green Island and mainland. No fishing.
3-13-45; Continuous ice-cover westwards. Ferryboat “Messenger” came back from Sandusky to Middle Bass and to Frohman’s Dock on East Point..
3-14-45; Mild, with SW wind, 18mph. Ice on west side began to move northwards at 1:30 p.m. and continued moving all night long. Miller’s ferryboat “South Shore” broke ice in the bay.
3-16-45; Warm, with SW wind. Ice out all of west end of lake except a few floes.
One can imagine these hearty scientists living out on South Bass Island in the frozen Sandusky Bay all those years ago, charting the ice, making drawings, taking photographs, writing poetic notes like these every single winter, for decades. These notes reflect a passion for the ice, a dedication to writing it all down, what the ice is doing, how it is changing. But the Langois’ were not simply ice scientists. In the introduction to the book we read, “Both authors, ecologists with backgrounds in botany, zoology, and physiography, recorded observations of all natural phenomena. Their interest in ice was only tangential to their interests in plants and animals (and people)…” So why the obsessive interest in the behavior of ice?
The study of ice on the Great Lakes can act as a point of entry into the study of plant and animal life too. When we think of life on the Great Lakes during the winter, the ice is the queen, the ice rules. Plant life, animal life, and human life are all at the mercy of the ice. But remember the premise of our project: ice is complicated. Although ice determines much of the winter activity on the lake, in contemporary times, human activity determines the ice as well. Studying the ice is not only an entry point into biological studies, it is also a cultural reflection of us. In Dan Egan’s fantastic book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, he writes:
“Historically, on average, about a quarter to a third of the surface of Lake Superior, an area of lake roughly the size of Massachusetts, froze each year. But average ice cover for Superior declined by 76 percent between 1973 and 2011. A similar phenomenon has occurred across the Great Lakes region; one federal research estimated in 2013 there had been a 63 percent drop in average ice cover for all the lakes over the past four decades. Across the same time period, scientists calculate there has been a mere 1.6°F upturn in the over-water air temperature for all the Great Lakes––with most of the change happening since the late 90’s.”
This small bump in the region’ climate has outsize impact on the Great Lakes region, and has significantly reduced the overall water level of the lakes over time due to the year-round consequences of diminished ice cover. This impacts everything from the delicate natural ecosystem of the lakes, to the stairs a beach-goer might build from the pier to his fishing boat. The ice of the Great Lakes is interconnected with culture as much as it is with nature. So as we watch the ice this winter, let us not lose sight of our own reflections staring back at us, and how we are interconnected with that ice, that water, that slush in-between, those birds, and those fish that swim below.
Let us learn from the ice, in all its complexities.