When does Lake George freeze?

lake george ice

The lake is quiet this time of year. The beaches are closed, and most boaters have put their vessels up for the winter. Anglers have replaced their slender rods with pack baskets of tip-ups, and they wait. Snowmobilers are champing at the bit, eager to race across the lake’s unobstructed surface. Winter Carnival, with its on-ice car, truck, motorcycle and outhouse (yes, outhouse) races, kicks off in a few weeks. It becomes the question of the day — when will Lake George freeze this year?

ice on lake george
A thin layer of ice forms near the shore in this December 16, 2016 photo. Photo credit: Eric Burdett

Since 1908, lake watchers have recorded the official ice-in and ice-out dates on Lake George. The Warren County Department of Public Works handled the task through 2013, and the Darrin Fresh Water Institute continues to document the arrival and departure of ice on Lake George. The Lake George Association, who has been watching the lake since 1885, looks at the “When will the lake freeze” question by analyzing this data in “An Historical Look At Ice On Lake George.”  

In recorded history, the earliest the lake has frozen over was Dec. 20. This happened in 1980; the latest recorded ice-in date is Feb. 29, 1932. Between 1908 and 2017, the records show 11 winters when the lake did not completely freeze. Ten of these were within the last 30 years. 

Last winter, ice-in was called on Feb. 13, halfway through the Winter Carnival month, yet it stayed frozen for only 13 days, the shortest freeze over on record.

Tip: Fish307, a Lake George tackle shop, posts updates to local ice conditions throughout the winter on their Facebook page.

Ice-in and Ice-out defined

How frozen must the lake be for an official call of “ice-in”? Does ice-out mean all ice is cleared from the lake? We asked LGA’s Communication Director Patrick Dowd for definitions:

 We define ice-in as, colloquially, the ability to ice skate from Million Dollar Beach to the outlet in Ticonderoga. In practical terms, it means that the entire Lake is covered in ice.

Ice out means that the Lake is navigable from one end to the other – though a small amount of ice may still exist in bays for a short time. – Patrick Dowd, LGA

Number of days Lake George was frozen each winter

lake george freeze graph

About this chart

We created this chart to illustrate the number of days the lake was frozen over each winter using data collected by the Warren County DPW and the Darrin Fresh Water Institute. Note: Ice-in dates for 1910 and 1911 were missing, but the lake did freeze those years. The top bar on this chart is last winter, 2016 – 2017. We are all waiting for the 2018 ice-in.

The importance of ice on Lake George:
Fun, profit and military campaigns

Toboggan slide at Fort Wm Henry Hotel lake george ice
Guests of the Fort William Henry Hotel ride a toboggan slide onto frozen Lake George circa 1910. Photo: Library of Congress

A trip to Lake George any weekend in February will impress on the visitor the economic benefits of a frozen lake. Winter transforms the region into a crystal wonderland of glittering ice and brilliant snow. Thousands flock to the lake for the month-long Winter Carnival. Who can resist the walk on water? The 32 miles of flat, open space offers all kinds of opportunities for ice fishing, ice sailing, ice skating, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and racing multiple modes of transportation — horses (in the past), cars, trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles and, on opening day of Winter Carnival, privies.

Racing on the ice, yesterday and today

Big-stakes harness racing on Lake George Circa 1910. Photo: Library of Congress
4x4 vehicles drag race on Lake George in 2015.

The Lake George Ice Company kept things cool

Before the age of modern refrigeration, blocks of ice pulled from Lake George were essential for preserving food and ensuring we’d all have ice cream in the summer. The Lake George Ice Company depended on a solid freeze to meet its contracts, and the company’s employees depended on this seasonal work to supplement their annual income.

News item in the Post-Star (Glens Falls), February 18, 1928:
The Lake George Ice Company have this year extended their field almost to the rear of the county buildings and are loading day and night. They received an extra order this week for ice to be shipped south.

 

Lake george Ice Co news item 1919
The Saratogian, Dec. 17, 1919

When 32 miles of ice separated battling empires

French and Indian War reenactors traverse frozen Lake George during the 2015 Lake George Winter Carnival.

In March 1757, the ice on Lake George was thick enough to support an army of 1,600. The French attackers traveled from Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) with a plan to surprise the English forces and seize Fort William Henry. Vaudreuil’s Raid did not succeed in this, losing the element of surprise when a Ranger sentinel at the fort spied a fire burning on the lake. Though the English successfully defended Fort William Henry, the French did not retreat without first destroying the fort’s fleet and outbuildings stocked with supplies. The French retreat was less than elegant. Reports at the time claim that many of the French regulars and Canadian Militia suffered from snow blindness and had to stumble their way back up the lake holding their comrades’ hands for guidance.

Is it safe to walk on that?

This chart offers general guidelines for determining how much weight the ice can  support. This chart is based on clear ice that is not over running water. Note that slushy ice is about 50-percent weaker. Be aware that bubblers, which keep water open around docks, will weaken ice for some distance.

Did you know?

As autumn brings cooler air temperatures, the lake’s surface water cools and becomes denser. The denser water sinks and pushes the warmer water to the surface where it, in turn, becomes denser and sinks. In this manner, the lake quietly turns over. 

If this process continued until the water dropped to its freezing point, 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the lake would freeze from the bottom up, not a happy scenario for the perch, bass, trout and salmon swimming below.

However, water reaches its peak density several degrees before it freezes, and at that point, the process reverses, bringing the near-freezing water to the surface where it freezes solid.

Is there still a Winter Carnival when Lake George doesn’t freeze?

Tubby Tubes Phil Normandin blows snow for Lake George Winter Carnival
Phil Normandin of Tubby Tubes spent the night blowing snow across the Beach Road parking lot to make a track for the Lake George Winter Carnival Outhouse Races, Feb. 3, 2012.

Yes there is! When the weather doesn’t cooperate, the Winter Carnival Committee is quite adept at relocating on-ice activities and creating new events that don’t require a frozen lake. One of the busiest Lake George Winter Carnival weekends ever was President’s Day weekend 2017. The lake was still open and, following a fluffy snowfall, temperatures rose into the 50s. People flocked to the lake for snowman-building competitions, human foosball, the hot chocolate bar, a chowder cook-off, karaoke, a dog show and fireworks.

In 2012, the snowmakers at Tubby Tubes saved the Carnival’s outhouse races when lack of ice and snow threatened to shut the races down. The Tubby Tubes crew brought their snowmaking equipment to the Beach Road parking lot and, working around the clock, put down enough snow for a successful race. In 2016, another year lacking in ice and snow, the outhouses were fitted with wheels, and they raced across the asphalt of the Boardwalk Restaurant parking lot.

Warming trends and the future of Lake George

Ice on Lake George has become less reliable. For 10 of the past 25 winters, the lake failed to freeze completely. LGA limnologist Dr. Jeremy Farrell notes, “…it is the most directly observable climate change signal in our region.”

In a study co-authored by Farrell, researchers report that between 1980 and 2009, the temperature of Lake George water rose significantly. This interferes with ice-dependent recreation, but more concerning is its effect on the health of Lake George. Longer growing seasons and rising water temperatures lead to increased production of “nuisance blooms” of algae and even toxic blooms “that can prohibit all lake use.”  More research is needed to determine the effects of warming waters on individual species in the lake.

As for my personal feelings, ice and serious cold weather seem to be lethal
to the invasive Asian clam, so I (and, I would dare say, the LGA) would be
very happy for it to be cold and iced-in for much of this winter to kill as
many of them as possible. – Patrick Dowd

When will Lake George freeze this year? 2017 is closing out with a promising blast of Arctic air. A good old-fashion winter is in the works, but will it continue? Keep one eye on the jet stream and another on a crystal ball and you may get your answer.