Solid Shoreline and Polar Vortex Events

Updated on February 16, 2018
Fossillady profile image

Kathi writes about fossils and other earthly subjects, plus the natural history of Michigan, poetry and more.

Ice shelf on Lake Michigan shoreline during a warm-up one week AFTER the Polar Vortex event of 2014
Ice shelf on Lake Michigan shoreline during a warm-up one week AFTER the Polar Vortex event of 2014
Few days BEFORE the Polar Vortex event near Silver Beach on Lake Michigan in St. Joe, Michigan
Few days BEFORE the Polar Vortex event near Silver Beach on Lake Michigan in St. Joe, Michigan

How Does This Happen on the Great Lakes?

How do those twenty foot snow hills form off the shoreline of the Great Lakes?

Having lived near Lake Michigan all my life, I often wondered how that happened. After many years, I finally seized the opportunity to watch the progression! If you look closely at the photo above (click to enlarge) and the video below, you will see waves splashing up over the ice sheet or ice shelf. Sometimes, depending on the wind and weather, the waves will reach 40 feet into the air. Well, every time the waves land on the existing frozen ice shelf, they deposit sand filled ice chunks. The constant barrage of waves and ice chunks gradually build up the mounds into the giant spectacles they are. Once the initial ice sheet spreads farther out from shore, the process stops and the ice mounds remain suspended.


Waves with Ice Chunks Slam into Lake Michigan"s Ice Shelf

Waves Slamming Under The Ice Shelf

But it doesn't end there. The process repeats itself as the ice sheet expands. It creates a fascinating mountain range of ice cliffs with numerous rows or tiers of ice mounds along Lake Michigan's winter shoreline.

The following article will venture deeper into the process with videos and photos, so hang on to your seats to observe this amazing phenomenon. Also, I include photos of the ice shelf before, during and after a polar vortex event, as well as an in-depth look into why it's dangerous to walk on it.

Lake Michigan Tiers of Ice Mounds one week after Polar Vortext event 2014
Lake Michigan Tiers of Ice Mounds one week after Polar Vortext event 2014

The Beginning of the Ice Shelf

Frozen shoreline beginning to develop one week before the  Polar Vortex event on Lake Michigan near St. Joe Lighthouse
Frozen shoreline beginning to develop one week before the Polar Vortex event on Lake Michigan near St. Joe Lighthouse

The Freezing Proess

But what is the process whereby the fresh water reservoirs of the Great Lakes suddenly transform from free-flowing into frozen suspension in the first place?

First, the air temperature falls below freezing, and then the surface of the water. Next, ice chunks form—which are often rolled into ice balls by wave action—and float on the surface. If the lake is fairly calm, the ice chunks are slowly pushed towards the shore and stick together. The result is not necessarily a solid sheet, at first, but rather ice balls freezing together on the shoreline. This phenomenon is the beginning of the ice sheet that will continue to spread farther off shore if temperatures stay below freezing.

The following group of photos were taken before the big storm struck showing the progression when the ice sheet initially forms.

Ice balls suspended on Lake Michigan shoreline (the initial process in the formation of the Ice Shelf)
Ice balls suspended on Lake Michigan shoreline (the initial process in the formation of the Ice Shelf)
St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach shoreline with solidified ice chunks and frozen sand
St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach shoreline with solidified ice chunks and frozen sand
Frozen sand formations on St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach shoreline
Frozen sand formations on St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach shoreline
Ice chunks forming near shore at South Pier near St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach
Ice chunks forming near shore at South Pier near St. Joe, Michigan's Silver Beach
Ice chunks moving into shore at South Pier in St. Joe, Michigan near Silver Beach
Ice chunks moving into shore at South Pier in St. Joe, Michigan near Silver Beach
Ice balls thrown onto shore from pounding waves, Oval Beach, Saugatuck, Michigan
Ice balls thrown onto shore from pounding waves, Oval Beach, Saugatuck, Michigan
Ice chunks on frozen ice sheet, Kalamazoo Rivermouth, Saugatuck, Michigan
Ice chunks on frozen ice sheet, Kalamazoo Rivermouth, Saugatuck, Michigan

Types of Great Lakes Ice

But do you think all ice on the Great Lakes is the same?

That’s not the case. And now scientists have found a way to characterize the differences between the types. The development was reported recently in the International Association for Great Lakes Research using math. It's an important discovery for two major reasons.

  1. To assist the Coast Guard in breaking up large ice formations
  2. To help weather scientists predict evaporation that could lead to lake effect snow

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration developed a radar system and an algorithm to detect types of ice formations on the Great Lakes.

The researchers use radar systems from either satellites or mounted locations to bounce a signal off the ice. The radar sends back a “signature", which can be interpreted using an equation to determine which type of ice lays on the water surface. This signature and resulting information from the equation allows scientists to see things such as density and depth of ice.

Though the algorithm can detect up to 20 different variations of ice formations, the researches boiled those down to five key types:

  • Brash ice – Large, thick ice chunks that break off of other larger ice formations
  • Pancake ice – Round pieces of ice a few inches thick where the edges often curl up as ice pieces merge together
  • Consolidated pack ice – Large ice floes that have frozen together
  • Stratified ice – Layered ice with differing thickness and density from top to bottom
  • Lake ice – traditional, thin blue ice that forms atop lakes

The algorithm can also detect calm water.

Ice-Breaking Ships on Lake Michigan

When Does the Ice Sheet Spread?

Often during winter in the Great Lakes region (not just during the 2014 Polar Vortex event), freezing temperatures persist for days in a row, and cause the sheet to continue to grow and move out further past the shoreline, especially when the lake is calm. But when the 2014 polar vortex created temperatures in the single digits with wind-chill factors as low as minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the ice pack held down the wave action regardless of the high winds. The sheet stretched to the horizon and in some locations, as far as the eye could see! Observe in photos below!

POLAR VORTEX ICE COVER OF 2014 on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior (Red showing deepest ice cover)
POLAR VORTEX ICE COVER OF 2014 on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior (Red showing deepest ice cover)
Historic POLAR VORTEX of 2014 over Great Lakes Region
Historic POLAR VORTEX of 2014 over Great Lakes Region
Historic POLAR VORTEX of 2014 over the United States
Historic POLAR VORTEX of 2014 over the United States
2014 POLAR VORTEX effect on Lake Michigan's Pier Cove Beach one day after the storm
2014 POLAR VORTEX effect on Lake Michigan's Pier Cove Beach one day after the storm
Bluff view of Lake Michigan ice sheet reaching the horizon one day after the 2014 POLAR VORTEX storm
Bluff view of Lake Michigan ice sheet reaching the horizon one day after the 2014 POLAR VORTEX storm

Dangers on the Ice Shelf

About one week after the Polar Vortex event, temperatures rose and quickly began to melt the ice shelf posing unforeseen dangers for adventurers.

People taking risks at Pier Cove Beach, Southwest Michigan during a warm-up one week after the Polar Vortex event of 2014
People taking risks at Pier Cove Beach, Southwest Michigan during a warm-up one week after the Polar Vortex event of 2014
People taking risks at Pier Cove Beach, Southwest Michigan during a warm up one week after the Polar Vortex event of 2014
People taking risks at Pier Cove Beach, Southwest Michigan during a warm up one week after the Polar Vortex event of 2014

Hidden Dangers

I feel the need here to warn people about the dangers of the ice shelf. Every year, someone creeps too close to the edge of the big ice hills and plummets into the freezing water of Lake Michigan below. Hypothermia sets in quickly along with loss of muscle control. Sadly, too many people have lost their lives this way. One incident I recall, in particular, when a young boy fell in and drowned, along with his father trying to save him.

The farther out a person decides to venture, the deeper the lake water, so it's wise to stay closer to shore. The people in the photos above were taking huge risks, especially the guy in the first picture who was so far out that no one could have saved him if he had gotten into trouble. Also, the guy on the top edge of an ice mound in the other photo could have easily fallen in. The temperature was in the 40's and things were melting fast creating slippery surfaces.


CRACKS IN THE ICE SHELF POSE DANGERS
CRACKS IN THE ICE SHELF POSE DANGERS

DON'T BE FOOLED into thinking the large ice hills are solid. Underneath them are loose cracks and pockets caused by the force of the waves, especially when things start to melt. I can't stress this enough! The pockets grow with warmer weather and you never know when an overhang is going to cave in. Another problem is that people can easily lose footing along the edges as the surfaces get very slippery from the melting and refreezing process.

THE PHOTOS BELOW demonstrate how cracks and crevices develop and expand when the mercury rises, posing threats of falling through.

UNSTABLE EDGES IN THE ICE SHELF POSE DANGERS
UNSTABLE EDGES IN THE ICE SHELF POSE DANGERS
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO UNSTABLE EDGES IN THE ICE SHELF
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO UNSTABLE EDGES IN THE ICE SHELF
HIDDEN CREVICES IN THE ICE SHELF
HIDDEN CREVICES IN THE ICE SHELF
DEEP POCKETS
DEEP POCKETS
DEEP HOLES
DEEP HOLES
SLIPPERY SURFACES
SLIPPERY SURFACES

You may be wondering if I took risks in order to capture these photos? Well, slightly, I admit, but I was careful not to go past the first tier of ice shelf mounds where the water would've been over my head in case I did fall through. Plus, the closer you are to shore, the more solid the ice shelf. If you look closely at the photo below, you can observe three rows or tiers where the splashing ice balls did their thing.

How do the mounds build up in rows that way? It has to do with the wind and temperatures. The first tier becomes stabilized, then weather conditions repeat the process.

I CAPTURED these willing sightseers on the first tier of the ice sheet and that was precarious enough for us all. We did not walk farther out from this spot where the water is deeper and the shelf is shallower. We stayed backed, but watched others foolishly venture out to the distant edges of the ice shelf.

Clear view of three tiers of ice mounds at Pier Cove Beach
Clear view of three tiers of ice mounds at Pier Cove Beach

. . . And finally, when temperatures continue to steadily warm, the snow and ice chunks separate once again as seen in the photos below from a later date. The first photo shows a big chunk of snowy ice that stubbornly hung onto the old breakers.

Shoreline melt down on Lake Michigan beach in St. Joe, Michigan
Shoreline melt down on Lake Michigan beach in St. Joe, Michigan
Shoreline melt down on Lake Michigan's Pier Cove Beach in Fennville, Michigan
Shoreline melt down on Lake Michigan's Pier Cove Beach in Fennville, Michigan
Remnants of the ice balls at Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan after the melt
Remnants of the ice balls at Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan after the melt

And then you can do this . . .

Chill'n at Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan
Chill'n at Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan

Which of the Great Lakes have you visited most often?

See results

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Kathi

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      • Patricia Swanson profile image

        Patricia Swanson 18 months ago from Aurora, Colorado

        I no longer have to close my eye and remember the images of my childhood days in winter along Lake Michigan in Union Pier and New Buffalo. Your photography is marvelous. The science behind your photos is much of the appeal to me.

        As a child, our mother took us to see the "icebergs" on a regular basis. We bundled up the baby, different ones in different years, and pushed the buggy to the top of the stairs at Miller Beach, Union Pier. About to descend, a man stopped us to ask a question. "Do bulldozers make those ice piles?" My mother, in her most serious face, responded with something like think about what you are asking! As children do, we laughed. WE knew how It Happened!

        I look forward to your further adventures. Thank you.

      • ocfireflies profile image

        ocfireflies 2 years ago from North Carolina

        Kathi,

        Awestruck! Shared and Pinned. You are such an amazing photographer AND writer.

        With Continued Admiration,

        Kim

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

        Looking at your spectacular but chilly photos of the dirty ice makes me happy to be in San Diego right now. The polar vortex last year was really rough on my fellow letter carriers around the country, and I followed their plight on Facebook from the safety and comfort of the California sun. I spent the winter of 1983 on the shores of Lake Michigan while stationed at the Great lakes naval station, and all I remember was that there was a constant cloudy pall over the lake so that you could barely see 20 feet out. Great hub!

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 3 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        Hi Nell . . . I know I haven't been around much, saw your article on pinterest. I'm due to write something! Good to see you! xo

        Oh Wow, Lizzy . .. thank you for the nice compliments and shares! I hope your Thanksgiving brings you many treasures and happy memories!

        CelebrateUSA . . . I know exactly what you mean. I'm getting older too and seem to be more bothered by the cold and traveling in it is the worst. I just stay home! Thank you for the nice comments and have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Kathi

        Oh Suzette, you know how it is then living near Lake Erie . . . the lake effect snow and cold! I so agree with you that messing around with Mother Nature can be a big mistake! Happy Thanksgiving to you! Kathi

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

        A very interesting and informative article. I remember the polar vortex from last year. Your photos are amazing and beautiful. I can't believe people actually would go out on the frozen lake that way. They are taking quite a risk. I don't fool around with Mother Nature. She is much stronger than I. Right now I'm living in NE Ohio 45 mikes from Lake Erie. Very similar. Keep warm!

      • CelebrateUSA profile image

        Ken Kline 3 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

        Fascinating! I have visited Lake Michigan often but try to avoid it during the cold weather. The cold seems as I age to get colder or are we just seeing a temporary shift?

        Excellent video, descriptions and fantastic photos that tell the whole story. Voted up! Excellent!

      • DzyMsLizzy profile image

        Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

        What an awesomely well-done photo essay, with much valuable information. Your photos are beautiful, and your words wise.

        We can nominate for 'editor's choice,' but I wish we could nominate for HOTD, for this certainly deserves that honor!

        Voted up +++, shared here and to FaceBook, and double-pinned to two of my boards: The Great Outdoors, and Education and Learning.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

        Hiya Kathi, came back to say hello, haven't seen you in a while! lol!

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 3 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        Good one poetryman! :O)

      • poetryman6969 profile image

        poetryman6969 3 years ago

        I always think: Thank God for Global Warming. Imagine how cold it would be without it!

      • newjerusalem profile image

        victor 4 years ago from India

        Excellent Hub with gorgeous pictures.

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

        I agree with Nell Rose. This hub was amazing. I like it, especially the photos...including the explanation. Thanks for sharing with us. Voted up!

        Prasetio

      • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

        Sanjay Sharma 4 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

        Beautiful hub and excellent pictures. I enjoyed reading it. But the hidden dangers are awe- inspiring.

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

        That was amazing Kathi! And yes I was glad you kept safe! lol! those photos were awesome! I saw something on tv recently, not sure where it was in America, but it showed the same sort of phenomenon where the ice flow came up over the houses! great info, and what a beautiful place to live, I am so jealous! lol! voted up and shared! nell

      • jill of alltrades profile image

        jill of alltrades 4 years ago from Philippines

        Wow! I enjoyed all your photos and explanations. This really is such a well written hub! First time for me to know those 5 different kinds of ice!

        Despite your warnings, you are very brave to go out and take all those amazing photos! Hat's off to you my friend! I probably would have done the same. Sometimes our photographer's instinct can lead us to some danger. :)

        Rated up and interesting!

      • profile image

        3catsintheyard 4 years ago

        Oh Kath! You have such a great eye; and the awesome ability to capture the beauty you see. Thank you for sharing! Your writing is equally as engaging (& informative) as your photography! I see the ‘big lake’ changing daily as well. Two days ago the ice stretched to the horizon. It is melting with such speed that the shoreline is now visible. I too have watched with trepidation, fear and anger (!) people walking on the ice. Days after the polar vortex, when photos of our ice encrusted Lighthouse made International news, there were adults (Hah!) with children and two dogs walking on the icy piers. Earthcam has a live video feed from Silver Beach in St. Joe. http://stjoelighthouse.com/ It was a helpless feeling watching, and I wanted to yell: “What is wrong with you!? You are endangering your entire family! Go home!”

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 4 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        Hi teaches, thank you dear for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I see you're still kick'n out a good deal of articles on the hub! I am only an occasional visitor these days, but could never let go completely . . . would miss my old hub friends too much! Take care, Kathi :O)

        Hi Sandy, so nice of you to drop by and comment! I agree with you 100% about our crazy weather right now! Stay warm, Kathi

        Hi b., you're so nice to leave a warm comment about such a cold subject . . . hee! It's really good to hear from you and miss the good ole days as a regular hubber! Will keep stopping by from time to time! Take care, Hugs, Kathi

      • b. Malin profile image

        b. Malin 4 years ago

        What Breathtaking Pictures Kathi, and the Videos, I could feel the COLD...Thanks so much for the opportunity to see and read what is going on in your neck of the woods. Maybe someday I will see the great lakes. This Vortex is NOT to be taken lightly.

        My Votes of UP, Interesting and Beautiful, as well as Awesome to you!

      • Sandyspider profile image

        Sandy Mertens 4 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

        Just looking at the photos and videos is pretty crazy with what is going on with our weather.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

        I lived up north most of my life and saw some pretty amazing ice formations, but none like this awesome vortex creation. I enjoyed your photo tour and explanation of the types of ice formations.

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 4 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        You're the sweetest! Thanks for the great compliment Ray and words of encouragement! I will always treasure our friendship! Remembering our Beansie! Love ya, Kat

      • profile image

        Ray 4 years ago

        Hi Kat-

        We've known each other the majority of our lives- I've always known of your kind and sharing heart. These pictures are so neat. You've given others the opportunity to enjoy God's Nature; be they sitting at their computer, living in other geographic locations in our country, or for those that are physically incapacitated and unable. May God bless you for your kind and generous heart in sharing your creative talent.

        Here's to many more years of friendship and the pleasure it brings!

        Keep up the great work and God bless!

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 4 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        Hi Jackie, ya, it's a bit unsettling and usually I stay off the frozen ice, but it was pretty solid where I was closer to shore. I was exited to show people the dangers and the beauty too! It's more unsettling to see people go way out where the lake is deeper and the ice is shallower! Good to see you my friend! I owe you a visit!

        Hi my sweet Ruby, I hope you get the chance one day to see the lakes. People who never have are always so surprised and will say things like, "is this a lake or this is like an ocean". I feel so blessed to have grown up near the big lakes even though winters are a pain . . . hee! I hope all is well with you and will be by to see what you're up to! Love ya, Fossi

        Hi Alicia, you're so nice to leave a great comment and share my hub! I have nothing but respect for that because your articles are always thorough and top notch! Will stop by soon! Kathi :O)

        Hi Sally, I hope someday you get to see this for yourself. That's the great thing about the hub, you get to see amazing nature all around the world from a unique perspective! Thank you for stopping by, Kathi

        Hi Suhail, say hi to your dog for me . . . hee! Well thank you for the great comment and you can rest assured I was very careful not to go out far where the lake is deeper and ice is thinner. It was about 20 feet thick and combined with hardened snow and sand. Glad you're careful too. Take care, Kathi :O)

        Hi there mts1098 from your mancave . . . hee! thanks for stopping by and hope you may have the opportunity one of these days! Hope your year ahead is filled with blessings! Kathi :O)

      • profile image

        mts1098 4 years ago

        Never had the opportunity but the pictures are incredible - cheers and thanks

      • Suhail and my dog profile image

        Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 years ago from Mississauga, ON

        Informative and beautiful article with great pictures!

        I had thought that it is only me who loves hiking in winters. Very well organized also!

        Btw, I hope you took best care in approaching these treacherously tempting ice formations. When I do that I normally tie myself up with a trekkers rope to a strong tree so that if ice caves in I am able to winch myself out. This is because I hike alone in the company of my dog.

        Finally, I was able to read this excellent article thanks to AliciaC, who shared it.

      • sallybea profile image

        Sally Gulbrandsen 4 years ago from Norfolk

        Fossillady

        Gorgeous images - how fascinating and beautiful. Nature sure is a something special. I would love to see this for myself.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        The photos are gorgeous, Fossillady! I love them. The description is interesting and educational, too. This is a beautiful hub. I'll share it.

      • always exploring profile image

        Ruby Jean Richert 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

        Hello Fossi, so glad to see you. This is an amazing hub, very educational for me since i have never seen the lakes. Your photography is beautiful as usual. Missed you..Hugs, Ruby

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

        Wow you were brave I think, scary stuff taking a chance on going through any of it. It is beautiful though I must agree! ^+

      • Fossillady profile image
        Author

        Kathi 4 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        Wow Bill, that was fast! Thanks for the vote of approval and simply for stopping by. I'm going to have to get on bandwagon and visit some of my old friends here since I'm not around the hub much these days! Looking forward to it . . .

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I had the chance to see this sort of thing up in Alaska. It really is an amazing process that happens. Your pictures captured it beautifully. Well done my friend.

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