Country MoonEvery season brings its own blessings, and trials, and winter is no different. Here in Michigan and other parts of the frozen Midwest, being on the ice offers its own share of pleasures…and dangers. So many folks partake in ice fishing, ice skating, etc. without really understanding the basics of being on the ice.

It has been a while since I have played on the ice but, when I was a kid, every winter I was out there with my Dad. He loved to ice fish, and I liked to ice skate…a win-win situation. He liked to go to different lakes so he never bothered with a shanty. If the weather was really bad, we just didn’t go.

All lakes and ponds have a routine, so to speak, on how they freeze. A body of water takes longer to cool down and longer to heat up than land. When an entire lake reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface water cools further, dropping below that temperature. This water is less dense than the surrounding water, which stays on top and continues to cool. Once the surface water reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it freezes, and this process keeps spreading downward, thus making the ice thicker and thicker.

So, why doesn’t a whole lake freeze? As ice crystals freeze, they float to the surface and as they become thicker, they act as insulators, preventing the cold air coming above the water from removing heat from the unfrozen water below. Because of this process, a lake never freezes solid from top to bottom. Water is shallower at the lake’s perimeter, thus it freezes faster on the outer edges, and the whole lake freezes from the shore to the center.

Rivers and streams are a whole other story. The energy in flowing water is constantly being converted to heat energy that resists freezing on the molecular level. For this reason, it has to be exceptionally cold for rivers and streams to freeze. Glaciers are prime examples of frozen rivers.

So, what is considered a safe thickness of ice to be on the lake? That depends on how much weight you are planning to take on the ice. The Old Farmer's Almanac recommends 3 inches of ice for a person on foot, 4 inches for a group walking in single file, 7.5 inches for a passenger car with a 2-ton gross and 8 inches for a light truck with a 2 1/2 ton gross. The almanac also stresses that slush ice is only half the strength of regular blue ice, and the strength of river ice is 15% less than lake ice. Also, the thickness of a lake’s ice is different at different points on the lake, so it is recommended that you check it every 150 feet.

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