A Meteorologist Explained Why Bizarre Volcanoes Of Ice Are Erupting On The Shores Of Lake Michigan

Howling winds shred the shores of Lake Michigan, a place of brittle wonders in the dark mid-winter. Above the bitter waves, great pinnacles of ice begin bursting with violent, liquid plumes. Lake Michigan is perhaps the last place you might expect to see volcanic phenomena, but in February 2020 meteorologists observed so-called ice volcanoes erupting on its shores.

Of course, Lake Michigan is a rich, dynamic and often surprising environment, as one meteorologist from the National Weather Service Grand Rapids hinted at with a tweet. Sharing striking photos of the eruptions, they wrote, “You never know what you’ll find at the lake until you go out there. Today it was volcanoes.”

In fact, ice volcanoes have been spotted before in the Great Lakes region. On Lake Superior, plunging temperatures occasionally lead to the formation of ice volcanoes near its shallow waters, usually on top of reefs and sand bars. And on Lake Erie, ice volcanoes, ice tsunamis and other bizarre, wintry phenomena have been observed, too.

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Water, of course, is one of the most abundant and versatile compounds on Earth. As a physical force, it sculpts wondrous landscapes. As a biological constituent, it pervades the cells and organs of all living things. Water is omnipresent and vital to the planet. But how exactly does it cause volcanoes to rise from the bleak winter shores of Lake Michigan?

In fact, Lake Michigan is part of a singular aqueous environment with some very distinctive physical features. Along with Lakes Huron, Erie, Ontario and Superior, it’s one of five bodies that comprise the Great Lakes of North America. Encompassing roughly 94,250 square miles, the system is more expansive than the entire United Kingdom. In fact, it’s the most significant area of freshwater on Earth.

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The Great Lakes owe their massive extent to the action of ice. Starting in the Pleistocene Epoch around a million years back, vast glaciers began migrating across the continent, gouging open ancient river valleys and transforming the region’s drainage. Around 14,000 years ago, the Earth began to warm, the ice began to melt, and the lakes began to form.

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Today, the Great Lakes play an important role in the local climate by absorbing heat and humidifying the atmosphere in the summer. In the winter, the tilt of the Earth causes northern latitudes to receive less sunlight. The days grow short and the nights grow long. And although the lakes emit some latent heat and help to warm the region slightly, temperatures plummet.

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On average, slightly more than half the total surface area of the lakes freeze over during the winter months. However, as much as the ice restricts certain activities, it enables many others. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice hockey and – for the fierce of heart – polar bear plunges are all popular on the Great Lakes. In fact, winter tourism in the region provides local communities with some $3.5 billion in revenue.

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Moreover, the winter can bring a host of rare natural phenomena. In March 2019 parts of Lake Michigan transformed into an ethereal wonder-world of jagged ice shards. Like fractured sheets of glass, millions of angular fragments coalesced in great heaps near the shore. For a brief time, the lake resembled the surface of an alien planet.

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The ice shards appeared after a powerful polar vortex swept through the region, plunging it into a deep and remorseless freeze. In the city of Chicago, temperatures fell as low as -23 °F. On the lake, vast ice shelves formed. And when the first rays of spring arrived in March, the thaw caused them to break up into splinters and shards.

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Meanwhile, so-called ice boulders – which resemble otherworldly white orbs – are among some of the unusual structures that can form on the lakes. Hundreds of ice boulders washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan in 2018. The unusual event, which lasted days, drew scores of photographers. Indeed, the spectacle was as mesmerizing as it was strange.

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Like ice shards, ice boulders are formed by intense subzero temperatures and the action of waves. In fact, all ice boulders start life as large fragments of ice. Over time, wave erosion molds them into spheres and they gradually accumulate extra coatings, expanding and solidifying into boulders that eventually wash up on land.

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Beyond the Great Lakes, ice boulders have been spotted in the chilly coastal waters of Russia. In November 2016 beached spheres of ice were documented in the Gulf of Ob, an expansive Siberian inlet and river delta in the Arctic. And in December 2017 scores of orbs appeared in northwest Russia in the Gulf of Finland.

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So-called ice pancakes are another phenomenon of the Great Lakes. They form when hard ice melts to slush and stiff winds whip at the surface of the water. This causes choppy waves to churn around the slush. This then accumulates into circular, pancake-like formations. However, unlike ice boulders, ice pancakes are delicate and flimsy and tend to collapse quite easily.

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Meanwhile, the Eben Ice Caves in Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan, are home to one of the most awesome ice spectacles on the North American continent. Forged by snowmelt that continuously bleeds over the cliffside, 60-feet-long icicles hang from the ceilings. They look almost like crystalline curtains, all greenish and yellow with leached minerals.

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Similar structures formed in an ancient complex of sandstone caves near Lake Superior, Wisconsin, in 2014. When some 93 percent of the lake’s surface froze over, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore transformed into an eerie dreamland of ice sculptures. The occasion drew more than 120,000 visitors, while locals claimed that they’d last witnessed the marvel decades ago.

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Speaking to CNN, Bob Krumenaker of the National Park Service compared the structures to regular karst formations. He said, “The caves form almost the same kind of features that you’d find in an underground limestone cave – the soda straws, the curtains, the stalactites. But they’re all forming out of ice in just days and weeks instead of something that would form underground in limestone over hundreds of thousands of years.”

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Meanwhile, when ice fuses with manmade structures it can lead to dramatic results. For example, the 3,200-mile-long Michigan lakeshore is peppered with lighthouses that look spectacular when frosted with icicles and pinnacles. Whether tall, squat, simple, modern or old-fashioned, the sheer variety of lighthouses in Michigan makes for some fascinating sculptures.

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Then there are so-called ice tsunamis – sudden, treacherous swells of ice blocks that spill onto the shore in vast, cascading walls. In 2019 a powerful storm caused ice tsunamis to sweep along the coast of Lake Erie, reaching heights of 30 feet. The event was accompanied by blackouts, flight delays and school closures. And in Hoover Beach in New York State, ice even engulfed several properties.

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Speaking to the Buffalo-based NBC news station WGRZ, resident Dave Schultz said the event was unprecedented. He stated, “We’ve had storms in the past, but nothing like this. We’ve never had the ice pushed up against the walls and right up onto our patios… It’s in my patio, the neighbor’s patio, and the patio after that.”

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Certain factors need to coincide for ice tsunamis to happen. Firstly, the shoreline needs to be slightly inclined. Secondly, there needs to be slightly warm, spring-like conditions that encourage winter ice sheets to fragment. Finally, there must be powerful winds. Indeed, the gusts that whipped Lake Erie in 2019 had speeds of up to 74 miles per hour, equivalent to the most powerful of tropical storms.

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Speaking to the Weather Network in 2019, a meteorologist named Matt Grinter explained how the tsunamis occurred. He said, “The first slabs of sheet move on shore, creating a traffic jam, with ice piling on top and behind. With the buildup of ice, and the power behind it, it has the potential to damage anything in its path.”

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Meanwhile, one peculiar feature of the Great Lakes climate is the so-called lake-effect snow. This phenomenon typically occurs when cold, Arctic air sweeps in from Canada, rolls over the surface of the lakes and gathers water vapor. The moisture rises into the atmosphere and coalesces into heavy clouds that subsequently unleash roughly 2 or 3 inches of snow hourly.

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However, not every part of the Great Lakes region receives equal amounts of snowfall. One area might be inundated with a blizzard, while another a mere mile away enjoys relative warmth and sunshine. The physical terrain plays a defining role in determining the region’s local microclimates, but the biggest factor is the direction of the wind.

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Generally, lake-effect snow has a range of around 25 miles, although ranges of 100 miles aren’t unheard of. The effect usually begins to cease in February when the lakes freeze over, thus depriving the atmosphere of water vapor. The city of Buffalo is frequently subjected to lake-effect snow in winter.

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Like most other Great Lakes ice phenomena, ice volcanoes only form under certain circumstances. Meteorologist Matt Benz explained as much in a blog post by the forecasting service AccuWeather. He said, “It’s almost a ‘Goldilocks’ situation where you need just the right conditions over a period of time to get these to develop.”

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Of course, ice volcanoes have superficial similarities with two well-known geological structures: igneous volcanos and geysers. Igneous volcanos form when liquid magma rises to the surface from the planet’s upper mantle. As it cools, it forms a low mound of igneous rock. The mound grows with subsequent eruptions, eventually forming a mountain.

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Geysers occur when magma heats up an underground pocket of water. As the water warms and expands, the pressure within the chamber builds until eventually a jet of scalding hot liquid bursts from the ground. Geysers require a continuous supply of water and heat, as well as a sealed fissure in which pressure can accumulate. Otherwise, the water simply surfaces as a hot spring.

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However, ice volcanoes differ from igneous volcanoes and geysers in one important respect. That is, the kinetic energy of waves causes their formation, rather than the heat energy of molten rock. To be precise, ice volcanoes form when waves force water through holes in ice sheets. Over time, successive “eruptions” cause mounds to form.

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Speaking to AccuWeather, Benz said, “Ice volcanoes – which resemble blowholes you may see in Hawaii or the Caribbean – develop as waves crash against the ice shelf with the spray freezing in layers vertically. This freezing action can form a mound with a conduit that forces the waves’ energy vertically, sometimes as columns of water that appear to look like a volcanic eruption.”

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Ice volcanoes tend to form on the downside of the lake when onshore winds provide consistent wave action. Temperatures also need be sufficiently cold to allow the spray to freeze and the mound to build. Ultimately, ice volcanoes are dynamic and short-lived structures, somewhat rare and prone to melting.

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Benz said, “These things are constantly evolving with the wind and waves. A certain wave angle may mean an ice volcano may be in one spot one day, but another may develop elsewhere as the wave angle changes. In short, it’s a constantly changing winter landscape, which makes each feature unique in its own right.”

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Although ice volcanoes can’t cause burns or asphyxiation like igneous volcanoes, they have the potential to be very dangerous structures. They may appear solid and scalable, but their outer crust usually masks a gaping hole in the ice sheet. As such, they should never be approached or physically scaled, lest they collapse.

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There are scores of icy lakes around the world, but few of them have precisely the right conditions for ice volcanoes, explained Benz. He said, “While this type of ice could develop on large lakes, most lakes outside of the Great Lakes in the U.S. tend to freeze up before you can accrete enough ice along the beaches.”

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However, some scientists have speculated that watery moons such as Europa, Titan, Ganymede and Triton might be home to ice volcanoes, too. Citing images snapped by the New Horizons space probe, some have even suggested that the surface of Pluto might have entire ranges of ice volcanoes. Indeed, the tiny planet is so cold and remote that it does seem possible.

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Another potential candidate for ice volcanoes is the dwarf planet of Ceres, which is located within an asteroid belt in the middle of Mars and Jupiter. In 2017 NASA identified a large salty-mud volcano known as Ahuna Mons on its surface. And because the structure is relatively young, it could be actively spewing water or ammonia.

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However, the volcanoes thought to pepper the landscapes of alien worlds also differ markedly from the structures on Lake Michigan. Known as cryovolcanoes, these exotic structures can discharge a range of chemicals such as methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and water. So-called cryomagma can be ejected in both vapor and liquid forms.

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As the cryomagma cools and hardens, it can form vast “geological” structures much like igneous volcanoes. One major difference is that cryovolcanoes are composed of atypical chemicals such as solidified ammonia, rather than rock. Also, unlike earthly ice volcanoes, heat is responsible for their formation, not waves.

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In fact, there are three potential sources of heat that drive the formation of cryovolcanoes. Firstly, the gravitational influence of moons can cause the interior of a planet to warm in a phenomenon known as “tidal heating.” Secondly, the formation of the planet or moon itself can leave a residual heat energy that drives volcanic activity. Thirdly, the decay of radioactive materials can emit the necessary heat.

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But whether they’re formed by heat or waves – and if they’re prone to eruptions of magma, water or liquid ammonia – volcanoes from Lake Michigan to Pluto all share intriguing similarities. With the same physical laws in effect throughout the Universe, it seems possible that even the most far-flung alien landscapes could appear familiar to our human eyes. Why not, if volcanoes can form on the icy shores of Lake Michigan?

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