Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes that surround the Mitten State, are as beautiful in winter as they are in summer. In fact, winter may be the season that best displays the incredible power the water holds. That water can create some weird phenomenon in Michigan when the temperatures drop and the snow flies.
1. Ice boulders
Head out to Lake Michigan during a really cold week in February, and you could see hundreds of ice boulders floating in the water along the shoreline. Your first thought might be to look around for the aliens responsible for creating these giant snowballs, but don’t worry. They’re just the work of Mother Nature. When big chunks break off the large sheets of ice that cover the lake in winter, waves toss the ice around and smooth it into spheres. As the balls roll around in the water, they collect more ice and grow. It’s similar to the way you make a giant snowball for a snowman, rolling it around the yard as it collects snow. You’d probably have a hard time stacking these slippery ice boulders to make a snowman however, since they can weigh more than 50 pounds each!
2. Pancake Ice
Leave your maple syrup at home. You probably don’t want to eat these frozen pancakes. Pancake ice is less common than ice boulders, but if conditions are just right, you could see them floating in the Great Lakes in winter. Ice pancakes cook up when the water is choppy and it has slushy ice floating in it. As the water swirls, it packs the slush together into circles forming round, flat ice formations. Most of the time pancake ice isn’t frozen solid. If you to pick it up, it usually falls apart. So you’ll have to make other plans for breakfast.
3. Ice caves
You may have seen a stories about ice hotels, manmade buildings of ice. They’re impressive, but how much more impressive is an ice cave made completely by nature, without any human intervention? You’ll find just that at the Eben Ice Caves in the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’ Upper Peninsula. Melting snow flows over the edges of the cliffs in the Rock River Wilderness, then it refreezes creating 60 foot tall icicles. The icicles grown until they create ice caves. Minerals from the rocks color the ice diferent shades of greens and browns. It’s a ¾ mile slippery hike to the caves from your car, so you’ll need ice cleats and a sense of adventure, but it’s worth the trouble to see this natural masterpiece.
4. Frozen Lighthouses
When the temperature drops and the wind howls, huge waves on the Great Lakes beat against the lighthouses, spraying them all day with water. The water freezes and eventually it encases the entire lighthouse in a white, crystalline cocoon, forming what looks like a beautiful giant, ice sculpture.
5. Ice Tsunamis
Ice Tsunamis are a perfect illustration of the dangerous beauty of the Great Lakes. A strong wind can blow large chunks of ice in the middle of the lake toward the shore. As the big chunks get close to shore they heave up lighter pieces of ice. The speed of the wind and weight of the ice keeps pushing the powerful masses of ice on shore. It’ moves quickly and weighs so much that it can take out entire buildings in its path.
6. Lake Effect Snow
It’s hard for folks who aren’t from the Great Lakes region to understand how a body of water can create its own weather, but it happens here all the time. First you have to understand you how large the Great Lakes are. The land in Michigan is about 56,000 square miles. If you add up the Great Lakes, they cover about 95,000 square miles. That means you could fit the entire state of Massachusetts inside the Great Lakes almost nine times!
The water in the Great Lakes is often warmer than the cold air coming down from Canada. (Thanks, Canada!) When the cold air passes over all that warm water, it causes massive evaporation. Well, all the water has to come down somewhere, and it does, in the form of snow. Wind direction and speed affects where the snow gets dumped, which means it can be sunny at your house and a mile down the road a blizzard is raging. If you’re in Western Michigan, the Northern U.P., Western New York, and Northern Ohio, you get the brunt of all that lake effect snow. That’s why we say in Michigan, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. It’ll change. We get lake effect rain in the warmer months also.
7. Ice Volcanoes
Ice volcanoes don’t erupt with fire and ash. Instead they spew ice, slush and sandy water. When it’s cold for long periods of time, an icefoot forms on the surface of the water where it meets the beach along the Great Lakes. It’s a mix of snow and ice, created from waves that rolled up onto the shore and froze. It can extend sevel feet out from the beach.
Sometimes tall hills form on the icefoot. They look like mountains of snow, but they’re actually hollow. When a swell from the middle of the lake makes its way under the icefoot, it can explode up through the tops of the icy hills creating the effect of an ice volcano. These wintery formations have an eerie beauty that feels other-wordly. It’s fine to view them safely from solid sand on the beach, but don’t walk out onto the icefoot. The ice can be thinner than it looks, and you don’t want to find yourself falling to your doom inside an ice volcano.