Lake Michigan's mesmerizing ice formations

Larry Mowry Image
Saturday, February 20, 2021
See mesmerizing ice formations on Lake Michigan
When the deepest cold of winter comes, Lake Michigan transforms into a majestic frozen world.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Lake Michigan is one of the most beautiful shorelines in the world: a haven of fun in the summer and a place to cool off from the heat. But when the deepest cold of winter comes, the lake transforms into a majestic frozen world.

This is ICE.

Lake Michigan covers over 22,000 square miles and is over 300 miles long from north to south. In the winter, ice piles up along the shoreline making for unique formations and dangerous conditions.

Water temperatures can fluctuate quickly as waves and wind can change water patterns on the lake. But when the cold of winter arrives, ice forms. The extent of that ice varies from winter to winter. But every year features unique ice structures.

WATCH: NOAA scientist discusses Great Lakes ice cover

ABC7 Meteorologist Larry Mowry sits down with James Kessler, Physical Scientist with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, to discuss ice on the Great Lakes this winter.


As the cold air arrives, the lake starts to cool and lake steam forms. It is a pretty sight: the very cold air rushes over the water, pulling out moisture from the lake quickly and forming small condensation clouds on the water. The enchanting dance of this moisture is an other-worldly sight.

In just a few days during Arctic outbreaks, ice will start to form on the lake.


The ice starts out thin but as the cold persists, it grows thicker. Then the waves and wind start to mold and shape that ice, creating unique formations.

SEE ALSO | What is 'pancake ice' and how does it form?

ABC 7 Chicago Meteorologist Cheryl Scott explains what Lake Michigan's pancake ice is and how it forms.


Pancake Ice occurs when winds pick up and waves increase, breaking the ice sheets into pieces. The wave action chips and forms the ice into circles like pancakes. The circular formations dot the lake, creating a patchwork of pancakes.


Ice balls form in a similar manner to pancake ice, but these are found on the shoreline. Chunks of ice break off ice sheets and the waves roll them along the shore over and over, smoothing them into spheres. These spheres can range in size of marbles to large boulders.


It's not lava shooting out of these volcanoes, but water. These ice volcanoes start small but can grow quickly. As water is pushed under the ice sheet, pressure builds and water shoots out through holes in the ice. That water spray freezes forming cones. The cones grow and can reach as high as 25 feet.


This beautiful scene can be found toward the end of the winter, when the ice starts to melt. Wind and wave action pushes the melting ice toward one side of the lake. The ice breaks into sharp pieces and pile up along the shore. It's mesmerizing to see in person. Ice shards are a precursor to a more dangerous flow of ice on the lakes: the ice shove.


Ice shoves or ice heaves are like an ice tsunami. Ice shoves are common in the spring on parts of the Great Lakes and other smaller lakes in the north. Strong winds from the same direction for an extended period of time, pushes free-floating ice onshore. As slabs of ice reach land, they slow, creating a traffic jam of ice. The ice begins piling up on top of each other, forming a massive piles. These ice piles can reach 10 feet tall and damage everything in their path.

The beauty of Lake Michigan is unmatched in summer and in winter. But remember to never walk on ice sheets as you don't know where the beach ends and the lake begins. Plus, the thickness of the ice can change quickly over short distances. It's best to just to enjoy the view from a far.