TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse Bay on ice.
Or under ice, to be exact, because both arms of the bay officially are frozen over for the first time since March 2009. Ice needs to extend from the southern tip of the bay out about seven miles to Power Island to be considered frozen.
“We had an early winter and then we had the Arctic vortex, very cold temperatures come down and just help that ice to form and continue forming on the lakes,” said George Leshvekich, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “The cold air temperature, it just fostered ice growth on the lakes.”
The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay recorded the bay as frozen over on Monday, but satellite analysis showed the bay 90 to 99 percent frozen over as of Tuesday.
“Maybe there’s a little crack or some open water somewhere,” Leshkevich said. “It’s essentially frozen over, or almost completely frozen over.”
A frozen bay has become increasingly rare occurrence that’s eagerly awaited by some locals each year. This is the sixth time the bay froze over since 1990, said Sarah U’Ren, the program director at the Watershed Center. Decades ago, the bay froze over more often than not.
The bay is relatively deep and stores heat well, Leshkevich said, so consistent cold air is required to freeze it.
The bay freeze, coupled with the fact that Lake Michigan is about 56 percent frozen, could cut down on lake-effect snow in the area, depending on whether the wind crosses open water.
The ice should also be good for water levels. The hard surface acts as a cap on the lakes and keeps water from evaporating and potentially traveling out of the Great Lakes basin, Leshkevich said.
Both higher lake levels and ice are great for native species of fish like northern pike and yellow perch, whose eggs are better protected from predators.
“Even just a little bit of ice cover offers visual protection,” said Heather Hettinger, a fisheries biologist at the Department of Natural Resources. “Higher water levels offers protection not only for fish eggs but newly hatched fish come springtime.”
On the flip side, nonnative fish species, like the alewife, tend to have trouble with drastic temperature changes that come with freezing lakes, Hettinger said. The species is important prey for salmon, steelhead and lake trout.
Some birds also are affected by the freeze. U’Ren said an eagle that normally flies by the Watershed Center hasn’t been seen in several days because he’s moved in search of open water.
The last time the bay froze this early was on Feb. 3 1996, U’Ren said. It froze on Feb. 15 in 2003.