Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 27, 2013

Unfrozen History


TRAVERSE CITY — Discussions about peculiar weather came as nothing new on Jan. 27, 1913, long before someone coined the term "climate change."

That was decades before climate change became a buzz-phrase for droughts, superstorms, low Great Lakes water levels, and last year's 90 percent loss of Michigan's tart cherry crop.

On that day 100 years ago, the Record-Eagle reported that the steam ship Beaver continued to travel between Charlevoix and Beaver Island.

"This is an almost unheard of occurrence as the steamer has been unable to run this late in the season for years," the paper reported.

It also noted that West Grand Traverse Bay had been frozen solid from Traverse City to Power Island three times in the city's history by Jan. 27.

The report included the duration of the frozen bay ice cover: 1866 (70 days), 1872 (89), and 1885 (93).

In 1913, those numbers were part of a 62-year-old Grand Traverse Bay ice record, a log kept since 1851.

Today, that ice record is 162 years old and one of the two oldest ice records near the Great Lakes. The other record was started in 1855 in Lake Mendota, 200 miles across Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

The two ice records played a role in 1990s climate change research.

They helped scientists in the two states determine that fall, winter and spring air temperatures at both sites had increased 1.5 degrees Celsius from 1851 to 1993. In Fahrenheit, that spike would be 2.7 degrees.

The overall study, funded by the National Science Foundation and led by John Magnuson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, included old and continuous records of lake and river freeze and breakup dates in the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan from 1846 to 1995.

The Grand Traverse Bay ice record has had several keepers.

The first was S.E. Wait, 17, the son of Old Mission Peninsula pioneers who tracked bay freezes and ice breakups from 1851 to 1916 for the Smithsonian, and later the war and agricultural departments, as well as the Michigan Board of Health.

The data originally was used for ship navigation purposes. The only way to get to Traverse City in the 1850s was by boat or Indian trail.

Others kept the ice record since 1916, including the Traverse Area Chamber of Commerce from 1974 to 1993. Northwestern Michigan College's Water Institute has been responsible for collecting the data since 2002.

"There's only been two freezes since then, in 2003 and 2009," water institute director Hal VanSumeren said.

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Biological Station at Douglas Lake in Cheboygan used Grand Traverse Bay ice records to study whether climatic change is affecting two species of mice: the woodland deer mouse in northern forests and the more southern-oriented white-footed mouse.

The deer mouse has almost disappeared, while the white-foot mouse is expanding northward. Researchers suggest the recent tendency for winters to end early, revealed by the Grand Traverse Bay ice records, may be responsible for the deer mice decline.

Scientists say ice records are important because they humanize the effect of global environmental change by using a simple measurement that is relevant and meaningful to the public.

"I think you will find after studying a while that long-term thermometer records are very rare, but that observations about things like ice or positions of glaciers can be centuries long, said Bob Vande Kopple, U-M resident biologist at the Pellston campus.