CLIMATEWIRE | MINNEAPOLIS — On Friday, Richard Gadbois, 80, did what he had done countless times on freezing January days in northern Minnesota.
He drove his SUV onto ice-covered Mille Lacs Lake — one of the largest in the state — to scout fishing holes. Within minutes, the vehicle crashed through the ice. Gadbois, who was wearing a flotation device, died, shocking the small community of Isle, Minnesota, where he was a town fixture and longtime business owner.
It wasn’t a single event.
The first weeks of 2024 have brought four deaths from ice collapses on Minnesota lakes, and dozens of injuries and close calls. The worst accidents have involved snow machines, utility vehicles, pickup trucks and even a small Cessna aircraft that landed on an expanse of untested ice before crashing into hypothermia-inducing waters.
Climate change promises to drive the death toll higher, experts say, particularly across Northern states where recreation on frozen lakes and rivers is a revered pastime.
Numerous studies show that rising temperatures are undermining ice conditions on lakes around the world, affecting not only winter recreation but transportation and local economies.
“These frozen surfaces provide essential ecosystem services that are vital to many northern communities,” an international team of experts wrote in a paper published by the American Geophysical Union in 2022. They found that “safe ice” season will shrink on average by between two and three weeks under warming scenarios of 1.5 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius, respectively.
Minnesota, with its more than 11,000 lakes, follows the trend.
“On average, the state has lost 10 to 14 days of lake ice over the past 50 years, with some popular, iconic lakes losing almost three weeks of ice — impacting lake and fish health, outdoor sports enthusiasts and business owners,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the state Department of Natural Resources said in 2021 after surveying ice conditions on dozens of the state’s lakes.
The greatest shifts are happening in northern Minnesota, where ice fishing and winter tourism pump tens of millions of dollars into local economies, and where lakes can begin icing over in November. Most years, lake ice thickens as winter’s grip takes hold, and by mid-January even deeper lakes see ice depths of up to 24 inches — thick enough for a large pickup towing an ice-fishing house that may sit on the lake until March.
But those norms are increasingly being challenged, including this winter when most of Minnesota experienced the warmest December on record, with average temperatures reaching 5 degrees Fahrenheit above historical trends in many locations. The Twin Cities broke a 150-year-old record for December warmth, while hundreds of other smaller cities and towns either broke or bumped up against long-standing records.
“This year is one to remember,” said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota DNR who studies the effects of climate warming on state lakes.
Early winter warm spells lead to weak surface ice, or what’s often called “white ice,” a reference to its cloudy appearance. Poor-quality ice is also prone to shifting and cracking, and cannot withstand the same weight as harder ice, which is often called “clear” or “blue” ice.
So far this winter, many of Minnesota’s lakes are experiencing “white ice” conditions, particularly northern lakes that began to freeze in late November only to thaw in December. But no two lakes are the same, and variability in ice conditions will be a signature of climate change over the coming decades. “It’s hard to say whether it’s going to be a linear trend, but I would expect a trend to see higher variation from year to year,” Boulay said.
On average, Minnesota’s winters are warming 15 times faster than its summers, according to state climatologists. Since 1970, the average winter low temperature has increased by roughly 6 F, and extreme cold events — minus 35 F in northern Minnesota — have fallen by up to 90 percent. Bitter cold spells are ice-making factories.
Just four years ago, in the winter of 2019-2020, the weather was so warm in northern Minnesota that some winter fishing havens, like Lake Bemidji — about 100 miles south of the Canadian border — saw no ice fishing. Hundreds of colorful ice houses would normally cover Lake Bemidji in January, but in 2020, it was an empty white landscape. Deep snow made conditions worse by acting as a thermal blanket atop unsafe ice.
This year may be even worse.
Nicole Biagi, an ice safety coordinator with the Minnesota DNR, a position established less than two years ago to monitor increasingly variable ice conditions on the state’s lakes, said the emerging risks are troubling because most accidents occur during the spring thaw, when recreationists are more aware of the risks of falling through.
Early season fatalities are rare, she said. The recent spate of deaths and injuries is partly attributable to old habits and expectations about when lake ice is ready for activity.
“People tend to look at the calendar instead of the actual weather conditions. They want to do what they’re used to doing this time of the year,” Biagi said in an interview.
There is no official tally of rescue operations, in part because the state has so many lakes across so many jurisdictions.
But given recent events, Biagi said this winter could be a busy one, even as annual ice fatalities have dropped with higher safety awareness. Minnesota currently sees an average 2.8 ice accident deaths per year, down from 3.4 deaths over the prior two decades. The highest number of ice-related deaths since 2000 occurred in the winter of 2002-2003, when 10 people died, according to state records.
That makes the events of this winter more concerning.
Gadbois died Jan. 12, when his SUV broke through the ice, marking the fourth lake ice fatality in Minnesota so far this winter.
Two weeks earlier, an 82-year-old man from Bemidji died from injuries sustained when his all-terrain vehicle crashed through unstable ice on Cass Lake, about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities.
It followed the Dec. 28, 2023, death of a 78-year-old man who was riding in an eight-passenger track vehicle called a “Bombardier,” in the northernmost tip of the state. The commercial vehicle is designed to cross frozen lakes. Yet it crashed through a foot of ice. Six other passengers and the vehicle’s driver were rescued.
The first Minnesota ice death this winter was recorded Dec. 23, 2023, when a 67-year-old man crashed his all-terrain vehicle through a frozen lake near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, according to local law enforcement reports.
Perhaps most dramatically, a Cessna airplane piloted by a 73-year-old man and carrying one passenger fell through ice on Upper Red Lake on Dec. 19 after landing about a half-mile offshore.
The pilot and plane’s owner, Lawrence Daigle of Cohasset, Minnesota, said he has fished northern Minnesota lakes since he was a child and that his single-engine plane — which weighs less than a passenger vehicle — landed on a section of lake where the ice was 10 to 12 inches thick.
After gliding about 1,500 feet across the frozen lake, the plane ran into what he described as an 8-foot crack in the ice. The front of the plane careened into the frigid water, destroying the engine and avionics system. Daigle and his passenger, who were planning an ice-fishing outing, escaped without serious injury.
“I never did get very scared,” Daigle said in an interview. “We were all fine, I just couldn’t see that crack soon enough to react to it.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.