2018-02-15 / Front Page

It’s official — Grand Traverse Bay freezes tight

Third time in 5 years
By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff

It’s official. West Grand Traverse Bay has frozen, morphing from its hues of winter grey to a brilliant white.

What a change a week can bring. Just last Thursday, ice was only gracing the shores of West Bay. As of Sunday, all six plus miles from Traverse City north to Harbor Island were covered in ice.

“It’s so hard to predict,” said Heather Smith, Grand Traverse Baykeeper at the Watershed Center in Greilickville. “It’s frozen when it reaches Power Island, and last week ice was barely past our docks.”

The freeze was made possible by a combination of some of the coldest nights of winter and relatively mild winds. Through Tuesday morning, overnight temperatures had fallen to 12 degrees or less for 10 straight evenings. A low of minus 2 degrees was recorded last Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the National Weather Service volunteer weather station in Maple City.

West Bay has frozen just eight times over the past 28 years; it’s now frozen three times over five years.

The bay used to freeze a lot more frequently.

“Back in the early to mid-1900s the bay froze 80 to 90 percent of the time,” said Smith. “Around 1990, ice cover dropped to 20 to 30 percent ... with changes in climate impacting the long-term trends.”

Ice boaters, kite skaters, ice fisherman and explorers love a frozen bay, of course.

Glen Arbor charter captain Bill Winowiecki is the northwest Michigan director of the Michigan Charter Boat Association. He said he has been particularly pleased with ice fishing success on the Bay.

“People are catching fish, but they’re staying pretty quiet about it,” he said. “There’s no real ‘hot spot,’ but they’re catching perch, lake trout and cisco.”

And ice can play a part to contributing to higher water levels in the spring.

The longer the bay stays frozen and wards off evaporation, the more likely water levels will be higher in the spring.

“Typically, the ice means reduced evaporation,” Smith said. “It acts as a ‘lid’ and it retains more water because there’s less water going into the atmosphere. It’s unlikely ice will affect water level in a drastic way, though.”

Higher water levels help the populations of some species of native fish.

“There is a potential for fish spawning early to benefit. Higher water levels do provide a bit more protection as vegetation can grow more effectively along the water’s edge, which creates better spawning grounds,” Smith said.

Winowiecki said he’s heard that summation as well.

“Ice cover is supposed to help whitefish spawn. They spawn on the rocks in December, I believe, but any time you get ice cover, it helps protect the eggs,” he said.

As ice causes ridges along the shoreline, those formations help keep nutrients from flowing into the lake, which help fertilize plants.

And the plants provide shelter and protection - a good habitat - for the fish who spawn there.

The negative side of a frozen bay, however, has to do with the power of ice itself.

Smith explained that she has heard of the higher water levels causing erosion for shoreline property owners.

The phenomenon is known as “ice heaving.” It’s caused by temperature change when little snow cover is present to help keep temperatures on the ice consistent.

As temperatures rise, ice expands. It’s that expansion that rubs sheets of ice along shorelines.

“Lots of ice can cause erosion — it can affect lakeshore property,” Smith said. “Ice is such a powerful force.”

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