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Ice Shapes Economy, Identity of Lake Superior’s Coastal Towns. But It’s Disappearing: ‘Culture Is Defined by How the World Around Us Looks — and Now That’s Changing’

The icy shores of Lake Superior this winter. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

The icy shores of Lake Superior this winter. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Clutching an oversized drill in one hand, third-generation ice-fishing guide Aron Kastern trudged through a blinding mix of rain and snow in late January to cross a frozen bay on Lake Superior.

During what is normally around the coldest time of the year, the temperature was a gentle 32 degrees, and puddles of slush sat atop the ice in some places.

Kastern bored through 14 inches of ice until he hit water. He threaded a fishhook with chopped up pieces of minnows and unspooled a line nearly 30 feet to the bottom of the lake. Bobbing his fishing rod in a technique known as jigging — which is intended to lure fish by imitating the motions of wounded prey — he wondered aloud whether his 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son would be able to continue the family profession.

In the past decade, balmy winter temperatures and waning ice cover have complicated Kastern’s charters. More often than not, he and other ice fishermen have been confined to shallow bays and harbor mouths, rather than trekking 25 miles offshore to cast lines in 200-foot waters, where they have a better chance to reel in prized deepwater fish.

“The winters aren’t what they used to be when I was a kid,” said Kastern, 43. “What are we going to tell folks who are coming up and booked in advance to fish the big lake trout? ‘Well, folks, we just ain’t got it. We can’t get to where we want to get to.’”

In a special report on climate change, the Tribune is visiting each Great Lake to discover how coastal communities are adapting to the impacts of a warming world.

Remarkable by many standards, Lake Superior is the coldest, deepest and largest Great Lake. Even once the ice thaws, Lake Superior’s average temperature hovers around 60 degrees at the height of summer, meaning hypothermia is a yearlong danger for swimmers and boaters. But these frigid waters support a diversity of coldwater fish. The harsh cold, to some degree, also deters some invasive species and inhibits harmful algae blooms that have plagued the lower four lakes.

But Lake Superior is also the second fastest warming lake on the planet behind Sweden’s Lake Fracksjon, according to a 2015 study.

As winter temperatures rise in Midwest states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, not only is a way of life ebbing away, but a large portion of the economy that depends on cold-weather sports and tourism also could collapse.

Tourists from around the globe flock to Lake Superior’s coastal towns, like Ashland and Duluth, for ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and other winter sports.

Average peak ice coverage across the Great Lakes has already tumbled nearly 21% since 1973, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lake Superior, the northernmost Great Lake, where ice is disappearing the quickest, has experienced the most notable decline, with a 33% plunge in this time.

The trend continued this year as only 23% of Superior was covered with ice at its maximum in mid-February, well below its average peak, when about 60% of the lake’s surface would be frozen over.

“If we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the rate we are now, Lake Superior may stop freezing by the 2060s," said Sapna Sharma, a Toronto researcher and an author on a Great Lakes ice study to be released later this year. "If, however, we mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions and use alternative technologies, Lake Superior will continue to freeze throughout the century. We’re kind of approaching a tipping point for some of these lakes.”

Northern lakes are heating up much faster than their counterparts closer to the equator, a trend that mirrors the rates of rising winter air temperatures. Research also suggests ice-covered lakes are warming twice as fast as others, in part because of ice loss. Lake ice typically acts as a protective layer, guarding against sunlight that might further raise water temperature.

“Ice is part of what makes the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes,” said Jay Austin, a scientist with the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory. “It provides us with a sense of place. We expect to see ice every winter. And when we don’t see it, we are suddenly living in a different place. It’s a little bit (oversentimental), but there is something to be said for the fact that culture is defined by how the world around us looks — and now that’s changing.”

The annual stock car races on Lake Superior’s Allouez Bay in northern Wisconsin were canceled in late January as organizers worried the ice was not thick enough. An outdoor hockey tournament planned there was moved to an indoor arena because the surface was covered with slush. Nearby, on Barker’s Island, sweat formed on ice sculptures at a winter festival.

Decline in ice cover

Though the ice cover on Lake Superior varies from year to year, the long-term trend shows less ice. Among the real-world manifestations is the Madeline Island Ferry is able to run for longer periods during the year, even all year long, because the channel between the island and mainland doesn't freeze.

Sources: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, historic records compiled by Neil and Forrest Howk, Madeline Island Ferry Line, Chicago Tribune reporting Image by Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune.

Sources: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, historic records compiled by Neil and Forrest Howk, Madeline Island Ferry Line, Chicago Tribune reporting Image by Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune.

The fat tire bike race across the frozen surface of Lake Superior on Chequamegon Bay in Washburn, Wisconsin, takes place on Feb. 16, 2020. The 20K race is one of Wisconsin's most unique fat bike races, bringing about 100 participants. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, undated.

The fat tire bike race across the frozen surface of Lake Superior on Chequamegon Bay in Washburn, Wisconsin, takes place on Feb. 16, 2020. The 20K race is one of Wisconsin's most unique fat bike races, bringing about 100 participants. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, undated.

For Great Lakes states, winter tourism generated $3.5 billion and supported around 63,000 jobs in the winter of 2009-10, according to a comprehensive analysis by researchers from Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame. With significant declines in the number of days below freezing, some wonder what will become of the ice-fishing shanty towns. With more winter precipitation falling as rain, experts are asking how much trouble perennially sloppy soil conditions could cause for timbering in towns that proudly display statues of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan. And with a shortened snow season, what are the repercussions for snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing?

“Growing up here, snowmobiling was a big thing,” Kastern said. “People come up from Illinois, Iowa — all these other southern states and different places — that never had much for snow.”

Now local hotels, taverns and bait shops close when temperatures are too warm or there isn’t enough snow. “Things have changed,” he said. “There’s no getting around it.”

Lake Superior's Madeline Island

Lake Superior is the coldest, deepest and largest Great Lake.

Sources: Madeline Island Ferry, Chicago Tribune reporting. Image by Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune.

Sources: Madeline Island Ferry, Chicago Tribune reporting. Image by Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune.

Outdoor nostalgia

In Superior, Wisconsin, a blue-collar lakeside town southeast of Duluth, the biting cold of winter and towering snowbanks have always been more of a clarion call than a deterrent for children. Irvin Mossberger, 48, spent his childhood winters playing boot hockey at local parks and toboggan sledding from the many hills.

When he wasn’t outside, Mossberger was accompanying his father, an avid curler, to the Superior Curling Club, where he grew to appreciate the two-person sport where one player slides a stone along a sheet of ice toward a painted bullseye while the other uses a broom to influence its trajectory.

Founded in 1893, it’s one of the oldest and most storied curling clubs in the country. With three world championships, it’s also the winningest club in the U.S. The town of 26,000 is home to some of the greatest names in the sport, like Bob Nichols and Raymond “Bud” Somerville, the first inductee to the United States Curling Hall of Fame.

In the early days, before refrigeration, curling clubs were only found in northern states because that’s where rinks could freeze.

Although many curling clubs play indoors now because of convenience, some enjoy the nostalgia of playing outside.

In 2014, the Superior Curling Club organized an outdoor tournament on Allouez Bay, hauling over rocks and brushes, setting up scoreboards and painting the lake ice.

“It returns us to the roots of curling, playing outdoors like they did in Scotland in the late 1600s,” Mossberger said. “Finding a way to pass the wintertime away, playing out on the bay, having a view of houses and the trees on shore. There’s something about it on one of the Great Lakes.”

The tournament attracted participants from across the country for several years. This year, with 30-degree temperatures and slush covering the bay, the event was moved indoors, moving at least one curler who traveled from Maryland to tears.

“It would be sad if it got to the point that we couldn’t curl outdoors anymore,” Mossberger said. “It’s such a fun event, bringing our equipment outside, bundling up, having a hot cocoa outside and throwing rocks. We would definitely miss it.”

Warmest January in 141 years

Globally, the five warmest years on record have occurred in the past five years, and nine of the 10 hottest years have taken place since 2005, according to NOAA. This January was the warmest in 141 years of recordkeeping, virtually guaranteeing 2020 will rank as a Top 10 warmest year.

Scientists say human activity is changing the planet’s climate faster than at any point in modern civilization, heralding costly and, in some cases, life-threatening consequences in every region of the country, according to NOAA’s comprehensive 2018 report on global warming.

A warming atmosphere poses a direct threat to Earth’s 117 million lakes, more than half of which freeze during the winters.

In many northern areas with traditionally colder climates, the pace of warming has surpassed the global average. In the Great Lakes region, average air temperatures have climbed 2.3 degrees since 1951, according to NOAA.

Open water of Lake Superior is shown near the shoreline at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, in Ontonagon, Michigan, on Feb. 17, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune.

Open water of Lake Superior is shown near the shoreline at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, in Ontonagon, Michigan, on Feb. 17, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune.

By the end of the century, states bordering the Great Lakes are expected to lose 21 days when temperatures had historically dropped below freezing, according to a 2019 scientific report compiled by a team Midwestern researchers.

Similar to the Arctic, parts of the Northland — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — have seen some of the fastest rates of winter warming, in part because weather systems carrying warm, moist air are visiting these areas more frequently. Water vapor, Earth’s most abundant greenhouse gas, intensifies heat. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture.

Large, deep bodies of water, like Lake Superior, are generally slow to respond to changes in temperature. Spanning an area the size of South Carolina, Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake. With depths that could nearly conceal Chicago’s Willis Tower, its 3 quadrillion gallons are enough to cover both North and South America with 1 foot of water.

But the unrelenting pace of global warming has begun to move the needle.

Scientists examined the surface water temperatures of 235 lakes over the summer between 1985 and 2009. Research suggested the global average rate of warming was 0.61 degrees per decade. Lake Superior, however, saw surface water warming more than 2 degrees per decade, three times faster than the global average.

World of warming lakes

Northern lakes are heating up much faster than their counterparts closer to the equator, a trend that mirrors the rates of rising winter air temperatures. These 10 lakes had the highest warming trend in summer surface water temperature from 1985 to 2009.

The fastest warming lakes ranked. Image by Chicago Tribune.

The fastest warming lakes ranked. Image by Chicago Tribune.

Now, an occasional frigid winter won’t undo decades of long-term warming.

Mild winter temperatures hinder ice formation on all of the Great Lakes. Ice naturally reflects away sunlight, keeping northern areas cooler. Without lake ice shielding the surface waters, sunlight can penetrate and warm the Great Lakes.

But warming in all seasons is part of a vicious cycle creating conditions that drive ice loss.

“As we see extended summers due to increased air temperature trends, it delays the priming of the lake for the freezing," said Eric Anderson, a scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab. "You start this cascade ... you start to lose your winter.”

Superior’s cold water has been a deterrent to certain invasive species and other problems observed in the four southern lakes.

But in recent years, algae blooms, normally endemic to warm, sheltered waters like Lake Erie, have cropped up near the Apostle Islands. This overgrowth of algae and bacteria appears to correspond with historic storms and flooding. Small infestations of zebra and quagga mussels have been reported in the area as well.

While global warming has allowed invasive species to gain a foothold, wildly unpredictable ice conditions also pose a hazard to humans.

In the past five winters, more than 200 people have been rescued, and over three dozen have died in ice accidents on the Great Lakes and nearby bodies of water, according to the Coast Guard. One heart-breaking incident in 2013 involved the death of 34-year-old ice-fishing guide Jim Hudson.

After a decade as an officer with the Bayfield Police Department, Hudson left the force to pursue his dream of being a full-time guide with encouragement from his wife.

“He is part of that lake,” said Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, referring to his love of the water. “That was him. That’s the only way I can explain it. If he had to leave Lake Superior, he would get visibly upset.”

In January 2013, Jim Hudson took a group of clients on an ice-fishing excursion. While his group fished, Hudson ventured out on a snowmobile to scout ice conditions near Madeline Island’s South Channel, where water is more than 100 feet deep in some places.

Hudson broke through thin ice that was obscured by snow. His friend John Esposito attempted to pull Hudson from the icy 33-degree waters but crashed through the ice himself. Soaking wet but wearing a flotation suit, Esposito managed to escape and rush for help. Emergency responders took Hudson to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The incident reverberated through the region. If this could happen to a seasoned veteran like Hudson, people thought, it could happen to anyone.

“You have good ice, then you get snow on top of it and it turns to slush, so you have really crummy ice," Hannah Stonehouse Hudson said. "You have situations where people thought the ice was going to be really good and they were running into slush pockets, where their ATVs went through or they went through.

“People want to get out so badly, they tend to push it.”

Many locals are unwilling to surrender their beloved winter pastimes; some even travel farther north to fish.

In 2017, Hannah Stonehouse Hudson, an avid ice angler herself, moved to Milwaukee, attracted to Lake Michigan’s hefty lake trout and salmon. But after this season’s lukewarm winter and disappointing ice conditions, she decided she had had enough. She moved in February to Fargo, N.D., a short drive to several reliable ice-fishing holes.

“People look at me like I’m nuts, ‘You’re a single woman who moved to Fargo so you can ice fish?’”

But ice fishing is more than sitting on a bucket in the middle of a frozen lake, Hannah Stonehouse Hudson said of the popular wintertime ritual.

“It’s a time of being social. It’s a time of feeding your family,” she said. “We’re spiritually connected to Lake Superior. It feeds your soul, it feeds your stomach, it feeds your community.”

‘There is no usual’

In February, large signs with orange, all-capital letters warned of unsafe ice on the lakefront in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Just a few steps offshore, crackling could be heard as a few defiant fishermen walked onto the brittle ice, pulling sleds filled with fishing rods, bait, chairs and tentlike shelters.

Only a few hundred feet away, the Island Queen, a 71-foot ferry, departed the harbor en route to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands. The diesel-powered vessel plowed through a field of measly ice chunks.

Capt. Shannon Mager steers a ferry boat through open waters of Lake Superior from Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Madeline Island on Jan. 23, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. ​​​​​​​United States, 2020.

Capt. Shannon Mager steers a ferry boat through open waters of Lake Superior from Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Madeline Island on Jan. 23, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Passenger Marcie Gephart rides on a ferry from Madeline Island to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in January. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Passenger Marcie Gephart rides on a ferry from Madeline Island to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in January. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Many of the two dozen passengers aboard the steel-hulled vessel pressed against the windows, marveling at the few ice fishermen who would surely feel the thin sheet of ice beneath them undulate from the waves left in the wake of the boat.

“Oh, that’s just crazy,” one passenger remarked.

“All that for a few fish,” another said in a disapproving tone.

Inside the wheelhouse, ferry Capt. Shannon Mager said she wished the fishermen would stay in the shallow bays where the ice is more solid.

“I’ve known ice fishermen who have known the lake like the back of their hands and have still lost their lives to it,” she said, hands firmly on the handles of the ship’s wheel. “They were somewhere they shouldn’t have been at the wrong time of year. The wrong ice conditions.”

These days, the right conditions and time of year have been difficult to gauge.

For a high school science project, Forrest Howk, a student from Bayfield, and his father, Neil Howk, a former National Park Service chief, decided to look at ice trends by looking at the length of the boating season. They collected data from the Madeline Island Ferry Line and pored over newspaper archives at local libraries, finding that ice shut down boat traffic at Bayfield Harbor for 141 consecutive years between 1857 and 1997.

In the past 25 years, there have been five winters when ice conditions have been so warm that the Madeline ferries have run continuously: 1998, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2020.

These mild, low-ice winters in the Great Lakes region have been intermingled with years of extreme freezes from prolonged intrusions of Arctic air. Some scientists believe the whirlpool of cold air perched atop the North Pole (known as the polar vortex) may be destabilizing because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. As warm air from the Pacific Ocean punches into the Arctic, experts say it’s increasingly displacing the frigid air from the polar vortex, causing it to spill into the Midwest and Northeast.

During the winters of 2014, 2015 and 2019, bitter cold air enveloped parts of the Great Lakes. In the most severe polar vortex in 2014, nearly 96% of Lake Superior was covered by ice.

“We were still pushing ice around on Memorial Day,” Mager recalls. “People were out here kayaking to an iceberg, and they would climb up on it and slide down it like penguins.

“I’m convinced there is no usual,” she added.

Historically, a sheet of ice has spread across much of Lake Superior, creating a 2-mile land bridge between Bayfield and Madeline Island. The ice road, as locals call it, allows year-round island residents to drive to and from the mainland for food, gas and other necessities. Residents also take a wind sled, a flat-bottom fan boat that can glide across thin ice with passengers.

A posting on the approach to the would-be ice road between Madeline Island and Bayfield, Wisconsin, on Jan. 23, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. ​​​​​​​United States, 2020.

A posting on the approach to the would-be ice road between Madeline Island and Bayfield, Wisconsin, on Jan. 23, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Decades ago, few doubted the integrity of Lake Superior’s ice cover. In one infamous case, contractors attempted to haul a two-story, fully-furnished house across the ice road to Madeline Island by semitruck. About midway, the 25-ton load broke through and epicly plunged through 2 feet of ice to the bottom. The driver managed to escape.

These days, even traveling by wind sled is at risk.

This winter, the ice road never opened. As a result, locals had to pay to take the ferry and strategize about which side to leave their cars on.

At the same time, Madeline Island Ferry Line is losing money because ferrying a few passengers in the off-season doesn’t offset the wages paid to the captain and crew. To mitigate losses, the company added a winter surcharge, inflaming the situation.

Tourism endangered

The sprawling shoreline of Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands features picturesque cliff sides, natural arches and caves. Summertime tourism typically dominates as gaggles of visitors fan out across the scenic beaches where they have a chance to catch a glimpse of the endangered piping plover.

Freshwater percolates from aquifers through porous sandstone caverns. In the winter, the dribble of water creates spectacular icicles and columns that coalesce with crashing Lake Superior waves, fashioning magnificent ice curtains.

Tourists from Madison, Wisconsin, experience ice formations during a tour of ice caves on the shore of Lake Superior in the Red Cliff reservation in Wisconsin on Feb. 15, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune​​​​​​​. United States, 2020.

Tourists from Madison, Wisconsin, experience ice formations during a tour of ice caves on the shore of Lake Superior in the Red Cliff reservation in Wisconsin on Feb. 15, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Rene Wagenaar, of Merrill, Wisconsin, examines ice formations during a tour of ice caves on the shore of Lake Superior in the Red Cliff reservation in Wisconsin on Feb. 15, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

Rene Wagenaar, of Merrill, Wisconsin, examines ice formations during a tour of ice caves on the shore of Lake Superior in the Red Cliff reservation in Wisconsin on Feb. 15, 2020. Image by Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune. United States, 2020.

While these ice formations are nothing new, photos circulated on social media in 2014 introduced the caves to a new audience. The pictures garnered global attention, and more than 138,000 people flocked to the area. For the eight weeks that the ice caves were accessible by foot, this flood of people crowded into restaurants, booked hotels and drove up business at gas stations. Tourism to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 2014 brought in an estimated $54 million in revenue for the area, including at least a $10 million boon tied to visitation to the ice caves, according to the National Park Service.

But that type of influx hasn’t been seen since. In 2015, the ice caves were only open nine days. That was the last time the National Park Service deemed the caves safe to visit.

About 15 miles away, on the eastern side of the peninsula, the Native American reservation belonging to the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has its own lesser known and smaller ice caves.

“It’s like being inside a geode,” said Jon Michels, a retired geologist who is a local guide. But in recent years, even these caves are harder to reach.

In some instances, the abundance of open water has inspired some brash kayakers to paddle out to the caves — an endeavor considered too dangerous to be taken by most.

This year, Michels, an avid snowshoer from Minnesota, created a new trail so he could safely escort groups to the ice caves.

But Michels is preparing himself for a day when there might not be a way to the caves.

Since the early 20th century, lake-effect snow has risen along the Great Lakes — although it’s been sporadic, peaking in the 1970s and 1980s, before declining. With warming air temperatures and less ice, lake-effect snow may be poised to increase — at least until temperatures warm to the point where it mostly falls as rain.

But regardless of the long-term direction, future lake-effect snowfall will likely continue to come in bursts in communities downwind of winter storm tracks. This includes the part of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula neighboring Lake Superior, much of northern Indiana and western Michigan that sits alongside Lake Michigan, and upstate New York near Lake Ontario.

Still, snow has been more reliable than ice, leading Michels to start marketing snowshoeing tours instead. He has charted trails to ramble through the peninsula’s old growth forest, a canopy of hemlock, white pines and white spruce. He marked out another route that takes clients to a bluff overlooking Lake Superior.

“The view is actually pretty beautiful, with the open water and all the broken up ice,” Michels said.