Ice Volcanoes Create Great Lakes Winter Outdoor Attraction

Feb 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Science and Nature

Ice volcanoes are emerging along the shores of the Great Lakes this winter, creating a unique tourist attraction. But experts warn to be careful when exploring them.

S1 icevolcano 300x273 Ice Volcanoes Create Great Lakes Winter Outdoor AttractionIce volcanoes (cryovolcanoes, also called “ice canoes”) are ice cones formed from erupting water and snow, just as regular volcanic cones form from erupting lava. When winter ice accumulates along the shores of large lakes, it starts to extend out from the shore into the water, forming ice shelves. Beneath the ice shelves are tunnels of water leading out to the lake. If the air temperature is several degrees below freezing, crashing waves can force water to erupt from these submerged tunnels through the ice. Sometimes snow covering the hole erupts with the ice. Upon hitting the air, the water freezes. The collected debris can accumulate into ice cones that look like volcanic terrain or the surface of the Moon.

The Great Lakes host an exceptional number of ice volcanoes, enabling Michigan Technological University geologists to study them. Researchers study how ice volcanoes are affected by factors such as wave height, air temperature, shorelines, sand bars, and rock reefs. They even classify ice volcanoes on analogy with regular volcanoes, recognizing shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes, arcs, and solitary “cold spot” ice volcanoes associated with zones of ice weakness rather than land shapes.

Ice volcanoes offer a unique attraction to nature enthusiasts, science classes, families, and sightseers. In Milwaukee, locals and tourists are flocking to the beach to see the sights and play in natural igloos formed by the ice cones. 24-year-old Marna Lamson described one ice volcano as “cozy” while she huddled inside it.

But experts warn that warn that ice volcanoes can be hazardous. Even if they’re not actively spouting because the opening linking them to the lake has frozen over, their bases can rapidly change from snow and ice to water. Shifts in temperature and wave action can also break up ice shelves, raising the risk of falling into the freezing water.

“You can fall through the ice, so you have to be very careful,” said Don Quintenz, director of education at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee’s Bayside Village. “I’ve studied the ice, and I’m still amazed by how fast things can get soft, and what was solid becomes unsolid.”

On February 17, Quintenz will lead a hike exploring ice volcanoes and ice caves along the shoreline at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, 1111 E. Brown Deer Road, from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. The program will also include hiking through meadows, woods, and wetlands, with instruction taught exclusively on the trail. The hike is for adults, and costs $5 for members and $7 for nonmembers. Participants are reminded to dress warmly. For more information, or to register, call (414) 352-2880.

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