TRAVERSE CITY — West Grand Traverse Bay may appear frozen as far as the eye can see, but it’s not quite fully ice-covered.
Bingham Township resident Sylvia Vandermolen could see open water with her binoculars on Tuesday from her Leelanau County home just north of Power Island. Vandermolen said there was more ice late last week, but the wind crumpled it.
“But it doesn’t take much for that to change,” Vandermolen said.
Experts said Grand Traverse Bay is between 40 and 60 percent frozen over, and ice extends about halfway to Power Island, long the benchmark for a proper bay freeze.
“It’s getting close,” said Lori Jackson this week from the Jolly Pumpkin restaurant on Old Mission Peninsula
Experts are hopeful the bay will freeze over for the first time since March 2009.
“If we get calm conditions, even with a few warm-ups, it’ll be cold enough where the surface temperature is at freezing point and skim ice can form,” said Hans VanSumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College.
Ice must form from the bay’s southern shoreline in Traverse City about seven miles out to Power Island to officially be considered frozen.
The wind is the main impediment to a frozen bay, VanSumeren said. Grand Traverse Bay is susceptible to wind because it opens to the northwest.
The rest of Lake Michigan is freezing over faster than in recent memory, with about a 46 percent ice cover.
“It’s been an early year and with the cold fall and early winter and the Arctic vortexes that have come down from the Arctic, what we’re experiencing now … conditions are very conducive to ice cover growth,” said George Leshkevich, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.
Leshkevich said ice cover across the Great Lakes is similar to this time of year in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Grand Traverse Bay has less ice cover than some more southerly parts of Lake Michigan.
“Traverse Bay is really deep, so it has a lot of heat storage (and) it takes longer,” Leshkevich said. “Part of it could also be due to winds, with the westerlies blowing that ice and keeping it from forming.”
Wind is not as much of a problem for Suttons Bay, which froze over on Jan. 21.
“From local lore, it sounds like this is earlier than we’ve seen in a long time,” said Fred Sitkins, the executive director for the Inland Seas Education Association, and who can see Suttons Bay from his window. “In a matter of hours I could watch the entire bay freeze from the edges toward the middle.”
Since 1900 Grand Traverse Bay froze over in January just 8 times, and three of those fell on Jan. 31, according to records maintained by the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay. The earliest date in the last century was Jan. 21, in 1977.
Freezing over has become a rare occurrence for the bay since 1990, said Sarah U’Ren, program director for the Watershed Center. The bay last froze on March 2, 2009, and prior to that froze in 2003.
“Since 1990 it’s only frozen over five times,” U’Ren said.
The earliest freeze on record is Jan. 10, 1857.