Lake Michigan shelf ice: Beautiful to look at, but dangerous to walk on

Lake Michigan ice formations are drawing the curious, but people are warned to enjoy the view from a distance.
February 15, 2014 4:22:31 AM PST
Winter's relentless cold and snow have created dramatic ice formations on Lake Michigan, but people are warned to enjoy the view from a distance.

Officials say Lake Michigan is about 80-percent ice-covered right now. Compare that to 60-percent during a typical winter. It's made for a dramatic sight that's drawing curiosity-seekers.

The images are breath-taking: the rolling contours of a natural phenomenon, sweeping in scope and beautiful in its detail. But this isn't some arctic landscape.

"When I show pictures to people, they say, 'Oh, I've always wanted to go to Alaska.' And my response is always, 'That's not Alaska. This is Indiana,'" said Doug Stukey, Indiana Dunes State Park.

It's called shelf ice, and it's the result of winds and waves pushing ice against the beach. It happens annually on Lake Michigan's southern shore. But as this video produced by the Indiana Dunes Tourism Bureau shows, this winter's harshness has created something spectacular.

"This is some of the most ice I've seen and some of the highest mounds I've seen, too, built up there. So it's really, really magnificent," said Brad Bumgarder, Indiana Dunes State Park.

"We thought it would look extraordinary. We were hoping that we would get to see it, and we're not disappointed," said Valerie McEnany.

The shelf ice has proven irresistible. Officials have been forced to increase beach patrols to keep people off the ice.

Though it looks solid, shelf ice is riddled with air pockets and can easily collapse, plunging you into the lake.

"Imagine going to the store, and you're buying a bag of ice. It feels like it's solid, and as soon as you pound it on the table, it breaks up into little pieces," said Bumgarder.

Adding to the danger is the snow-covered shoreline. Here on the beach, it's hard to know exactly where the lake shore is.

"It's such a neat thing to see. We want people to come out and see it, but do it safely. Bring your camera and watch it from the shoreline, though, and be safe and stay a distance away," said Bumgarder.

Fortunately there have been no reports of people being injured on that shelf ice. But with a warmup on the way, those already-fragile ice formations are only going to be more precarious.


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