Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ice-Out Days and Climate Change

ice outWhile driving down from Isle La Motte in early December, my son and I noticed a fine skim of ice floating down the Alburg Passage. As it collided with the Route 2 bridge supports, it broke into rectangular fragments. I wondered if what I was seeing was typical, or a symptom of changing climate? But a single observation tells you only about the current weather, and says nothing about climate trends.

To understand long-term patterns requires long-term data. So I reviewed ice formation data on Lake Champlain. I learned that between 1816 and 1916, the lake was “closed” to navigation in 96 of 100 winters. In the last 30 winters, the lake has closed 13 times, and just three times this past decade. At first blush, this might seem like overwhelming evidence for less ice, but again, this is not the whole story.

The 200-year data set was gathered by three different governmental agencies, a Burlington public official and historian, and a “cooperative weather observer.” Consistency might be a bit much to expect and “closed to navigation” could range from an ice passage from Burlington to Plattsburgh, or simply frozen harbors.

For a more consistently measured data set, Dr. Alan Betts, a Vermont climatologist, looked to the Joe’s Pond Association. Each winter for more than two decades, association members have placed a wooden pallet on the ice of Joe’s Pond in West Danville, Vermont. A cinderblock sits on the pallet and is strung to the plug of an electric clock on Homer Fitts’ deck. For a small donation to the association, you too can guess when the ice will give way, the cinderblock sink, and the clock be unplugged; best guess wins!

The simplicity and consistency of this measurement technique is precisely what peaked Betts’ interest. Across the short interval of twenty years, there’s a clear trend; the cinderblock sinks about 6 days earlier than it did two decades ago.

Betts has also reviewed 40 years of ice-out data from the Fairbanks Museum and found the same pattern: the ice on Stiles Pond goes out about three days earlier per decade. Every decade, on average, the pond has frozen four days later, and the total frozen period has been shrinking by seven days per decade since 1970.

“Ice out” patterns are consistent with other indicators of change. For example, Betts has reviewed data on Vermont’s lilac flowering dates. On average, lilac leaves are developing about two weeks earlier than they did in the 1960s, and flowers open more than a week earlier.

With the greatest respect to ice and lilac, I suspect that some Vermonters might be more interested in changes in maple sugaring; this thought has not been wasted on Vermont scientists.

Justin Guilbert and Vermont EPSCoR collaborators examined climate trends and predicted 11 fewer maple sugaring days by mid-century. They also predicted a shift in the sugaring season towards the midwinter months of December and January.

If at this point, you’re thinking that these trends are awfully short-term, and that anyone trying to predict the future of sugaring is walking on thin ice, you have a valid point; one of the difficulties of predicting climate change and its effects is the complexity of factors, including the background “noise” of our naturally variable weather conditions. This is, after all, a region which prides itself on the notion that, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.”

That said, while we can’t with certainty predict what maple trees, or ponds, or ornamental plants will do in future years, it’s very clear that we’re in a period of rapid temperature change, and based on what we know of atmospheric science and human-caused emissions, there’s no reason to expect that change to stop any time soon.

As Betts recently told me, “climate change is on a roll and all we can do is slow it down, and give our societies and all of life on Earth more time to adapt.” In the meantime, I plan on placing my first ever bet on Joe’s Pond this year. What day I will bet on? That’s my secret; but it will certainly be earlier than I would have bet in 1997.

Declan McCabe teaches biology at Saint Michael’s College. His work with student researchers on insect communities in the Champlain Basin is funded by Vermont EPSCoR’s Grant NSF EPS Award #1556770 from the National Science Foundation. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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18 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    Do not tell the snowmobilers about this. They are convinced the answer is to just build more trails, and winter will always come just like it used to.

    “Snow farming” is not a good investment for the future of the region. The climate is changing despite the denial.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      I saw a very funny quote the other day – ground hog day – that said something to the effect: “We are a nation riveted by the forecasting abilities of a rodent while at the same time denying decades of work by top-notch scientists.”

      Says something.

  2. ADKresident says:

    Google the final report on the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. Look for the bobsled runs, it was delayed until the last day because of warm temperatures and no snow. There is a shot showing the infield in Lake Placid. You can clearly see patches of grass.

    80,000,000 people are added to the world every year, that is more then the population of PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, VT, NH, MA and ME (56,000,000).

    In less than 5 years it is more then the population of the USA.

    In 1972 the USA crossed the 200 million mark, today about 340 million, in about 2025 we will hit 400 million.

    In about 50 years the population of the USA will have doubled.

    This is the discussion that no one wants to have.

    • Charlie S says:

      Yes ADKresident. In 50 years that much more people, that much more pollution, that much more hot-air from the crazy apes, that much more stress on the ecosystems, that much more concern about what we’re going to do to preserve what’s left……if we even come to that then! Right now we should be thinking about preserving what’s left. Nope! Same old same old….more roads, more development,
      more preparing for wars…. more of the same old backwards stinking thinking. I’m glad I’m not going to be around then.

      • Paul says:

        Charlie, haven’t you commented here that you drive around in some kind of old fossil fuel burning (probably higher emission) truck?

        • ADKresident says:

          Paul,
          Yes I have always seen these people that want to tell me what I need to do but they do whatever they want.

          The best are the people that buy a Prius and drive all over hell’s half acre. They go on vacations to remote areas, Morocco, Alaska, South Pole etc polluting all over, impacting the pristine environment they have the money to see, but then exclaim how Trump is soooo bad.

          For everyone search YouTube for Robin Williams and his skit on Climate Change, as expected it is outstanding and right on topic but delivered in a way that only he can.

          We are all the Amoebas in the petri dish you observed in 6th grade science class where they died in their own pollution. After it was over the world returned to equilibrium.

    • Bill Ott says:

      It will take drastic changes in world government to control population before overpopulation destroys the world as we know it. Think of Venus. There may come a tipping point after which whomever is left on this planet will exist knowing the end is near. What if we have already passed that point. Perhaps the groundhog will have the last laugh.

  3. Paul says:

    From our records on the lake (about 40 years now) ice out seems roughly about the same time. Ice in seems later, for sure.

    • Paul says:

      In the mid and late seventies we snowmobiled on the lake in mid December regularly sometimes at thanksgiving, now forget it. Lucky if you get out there before xmas any year.

  4. Boreas says:

    More data confounders:

    Closing navigation to wood-hulled general shipping N-S vs. steel-hulled ferries E-W would likely require different levels of ice on L. Champlain than what we see today.

    How much is road salt salination interfering with ice formation and retention on lakes and ponds? Does it make ice more rotten? Slower to form? Quicker to thaw?

    What constitutes ‘ice’? Clear, hard ice vs. white, rotten ice?

    Just sayin’ – are our historical views of ice the same as our modern views? What seems like long-term ‘ice’ data may not be pertinent today WRT climate change – a lot of confounding variables. These were just a few lying on the top of my bald head.

    • Jesse B says:

      Boreas, as an FYI, fit takes a 5 parts per thousand increase in salinity to lower the freezing point of water by about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In Mirror Lake (which has higher salt levels than 97% of Adirondack waters), their measured concentration was 22 parts per million (http://www.mirrorlake.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Salt-in-Mirror-Lake.pdf). While salt loading is a concern for ecosystem health, it’s just not at concentrations high enough to impact ice-in or ice-out days.

      • Boreas says:

        Jesse B,

        I agree salinity likely isn’t a big factor for ice-in and out, but I still suspect it has some impact, depending on the water body. I am not sure how citing Mirror Lake’s system as an example translates across the state. That is why these things are confounders – every lake is different. Salinity tends to stratify more in deeper lakes, so will have more effect on some water bodies than others. It also isn’t constant – road salt usage, run-off, and even wind are all factors, as are springs and inflow/outflow. Mirror Lake is relatively well-studied compared to most lakes around the country. It is very deep so there can be significant stratification. There is also the possibility of rapid spring thaws causing road run-off (sand and salt) flowing directly on top of ice where it doesn’t mix with the pond water as quickly. Road sand can rot ice as well and many Adirondack roads use less salt and more sand.

        It is difficult to parse out all of the factors (sunlight intensity, temperature, wind, chemicals, silt, etc.) that contribute to ice-in and out in uncontrolled settings, and it is easy to get caught up in the individual effects of each. However, these micro-environments also have to be viewed holistically and the synergy of all factors acting together can be different than adding up the factors individually. But sitting around trying to get our heads around why things seem to change over time is a popular winter activity.

  5. ADKresident says:

    This morning I see the photo by a founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, of his car in space heading to an orbit around Mars.

    I laugh thinking of all the Hollywood people who have bought his car to be “Green”, the people that wish to live in his “solar city”.
    This event has spewed untold thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere not even counting the pollution produced in making the rocket.

    • john says:

      I have looked, but I can’t find information on the pollutants from a rocket launch. Can you give more on this topic?

      • Bill Ott says:

        John, you put a bug up my own polluter, so I tried to looking this stuff up too. The United Nations 2018 Quadrennial Global Ozone Assessment (say that 10 times real quick) is to study that. There do not seem to be many numbers out there yet.

        Our Antares rocket may use about 590,000 lbs of liquid and solid propellants for trips to the Space Station. The second stage seems to be a big variable here, but I figured the heaviest one in order to get the largest payload to our guys. That amounts to filling your car with 20 gallons (120 lbs) of fuel almost 5,000 times, which does not seem so bad except the Antares has no catalytic converter, and its fuels may be much more polluting than gasoline.

  6. Charlie S says:

    Paul says: “Charlie, haven’t you commented here that you drive around in some kind of old fossil fuel burning (probably higher emission) truck?”

    ADKresident responds: “Paul,Yes I have always seen these people that want to tell me what I need to do but they do whatever they want.”

    To be clear I’m on your side ADKresident clearly that can be seen in my response to your blurb. And you Paul! What does your query have to do what I say above? I told myself a few weeks ago that I am just going to ignore every thing you say from now on after some odd response to something else I wrote back then. Like the above I couldn’t figure where you were going with your response or why you even pulled it out of your hat as it had nothing to do with what I said…..just as above. You’re trying to stir me Paul I know you are.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “Each winter for more than two decades, association members have placed a wooden pallet on the ice of Joe’s Pond in West Danville, Vermont……………….The simplicity and consistency of this measurement technique is precisely what peaked Betts’ interest. Across the short interval of twenty years, there’s a clear trend; the cinderblock sinks about 6 days earlier than it did two decades ago.”

    Very clever indeed. Oftentimes answers to our queries are right under our noses if we were to but just be uncomplicated.

  8. Charlie says:

    ADKresident says: “This morning I see the photo by a founder of Tesla, Elon Musk, of his car in space heading to an orbit around Mars.”

    Yes and listen to them crowds cheering it on. Like fanatical football fans in their vainglorious uproars when their team scores. The planet is cooking supposedly due to carbon emissions and here we send a rocket up to space and all of that hot toxic carbon fuel to get it there…… just to float an expensive material-thing car in orbit around the red planet. O’ and I heard there was also a spy satellite on this rocket also. Priorities! We’re chock full of them….or full of something. Things are ever so strange. I suppose it don’t really matter that we’re soon going to be allowing carbon emissions to be spewed so close to Boreas Ponds as eventually they were going to get there anyway what with the way we go about our business everywhere else. The earth is like a garage the sky is its roof. Everything that goes up into that sky – carbon and sulfur dioxides, the 10,000 toxins, etc….stays under that roof. Maybe that’s why we’re cooking!

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