Blue Ice Under The Mackinac Bridge
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Have You Seen These Frozen Lake Michigan Phenomenons?

If you’ve ever been to the Great Lakes during the height of winter, you may have seen some strange, yet beautiful frozen formations around and on the lakes themselves. However, one Great Lake stands above the rest when it comes to these freakishly fantastic developments — Lake Michigan.

Frozen Lake Michigan phenomenons are truly sights to behold and are definitely worth touring should you ever find yourself anywhere near them. These are natural ice sculptures that are molded by Mother Nature herself.

What is a popular beachfront destination during summer turns into bizarre exhibits of icy wonderment when temperatures drop below freezing. Here are some of the weirdest, wildest, and most wondrous sights of Lake Michigan when it’s frozen.

Mackinac Bridge, Straits Of Mackinac
Mackinac Bridge

Blue Ice in Michigan

The Straits of Mackinac is a waterway that separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, dividing the two peninsulas of the state of Michigan.

The Upper Peninsula, typically referred to as the “U.P.,” extends farther north than some may realize, bordering Northern Wisconsin and just across the St. Mary’s River from Canada. The Lower Peninsula borders Ohio & Indiana.

The bridge that allows travelers to connect to either peninsula is the Mackinac Bridge. During the coldest months, it hovers above an amazing phenomenon known as blue ice.

Yes, the ice on top of the lake is undeniably blue. At least, it appears to be. During sustained periods of extreme cold, the ice over the Straits of Mackinac goes through a slow and steady deep freeze.

In January and February, the average high on Mackinac Island is no warmer than 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Since it is below freezing, what becomes frozen stays frozen for a few months at least. However, this permits the amazing development of blue ice.

As the freeze deepens, the ice crystals become larger. This lets surrounding light extend farther into the crystallized depths of the ice. As the deeper ice catches light rays, the ice takes on a bluish hue. So, anyone who wants to see blue ice in Michigan should hope for a very cold winter!

Ice Volcano - Lake Michigan
Ice Volcano | photo via Andrew McFarlane

Michigan Ice Volcanoes

You don’t have to go to Hawaii or Iceland to find volcanoes. Just take a trip to Lake Michigan in the middle of winter! Fortunately, ice volcanoes don’t blast magma and flowing lava streams. However, these do spout bursts of extremely cold and icy water. So, how do these strange developments happen?

As with most frozen Lake Michigan phenomenons, these cone-like formations develop over time and under extremely cold weather conditions. Also known as “ice canos,” the main two components that create these natural oddities in winter are wind and water.

Freezing temperatures force the lake to develop an ice shelf. On windy days, waves are driven toward the shore. As these waves crash into the shoreline, they also hit the ice shelf. This pushes the water up through the air.

Since the air is very cold, frozen water begins to accumulate, forming conical forms of ice. The openings in the top of the ice allow water to spurt through from below the surface, causing a volcano-like effect of icy water.

This cycle continues as long as the air and water are cold enough. So, with a long and cold winter, ice volcanoes can grow quite large. Usually, people looking to spot ice volcanoes will find a few at the end of January — it’s enough time for cold temperatures to remain steady and allow them to form.

If winter weather starts sooner, you’ll find these freaky formations sooner. The same goes for winters that start later. You can expect to find ice volcanoes later too.

South Haven Light - South Haven, Michigan
South Haven Light | photo via Tom Gill

Ice Balls on Lake Michigan

Ice balls are one of the beautiful oddballs that form on Lake Michigan in the winter. You’ve probably caught onto the cold-air-meet-water process that creates this winter phenomenon.

However, ice balls have a subtle difference. The weather conditions have to be just right for nature to give a circular shape to these formations.

For starters, ice balls don’t form in deep water. It has to be a shallow body of water on a beach. Also, temperatures don’t have to sustain subfreezing temperatures for a long time either.

Ice balls can form when the temperature has barely dipped below freezing. The ice that forms is still sort of slushy, and all of that slush combines into ball-like shapes. The waves complete the masterpiece by finely honing the circles as they crash into the ice balls.

With enough time and the constant motion of water, ice balls get larger and larger. They can be difficult to see because of how particular the conditions need to be for them to form. If you can manage to get to the lake at the right time, though, grab a camera or phone to make the sight last forever.

St Joseph Lighthouse - Lake Michigan
St Joseph Lighthouse after a polar vortex | photo via KDZ.Photo

The Great Polar Vortex | A Catalyst for More Oddities

The Great Lakes are situated in a region that regularly experiences a polar vortex or several during the winter season. That creates the special conditions that form these freaky and frozen formations. So, what is a polar vortex?

When the cold air of the Arctic has a frigid meeting with low pressure, a polar vortex is born. Global jet streams that are strong tend to keep the polar vortex at home in the Arctic.

If the jet stream is weak and temperatures across the vortex are too similar, these conditions give it a chance to break free and travel south.

Although it is very rare for these weather systems to travel to the southern portion of the United States, a polar vortex on the loose can make a few pit stops in the Great Lakes region.

While the areas around Lake Michigan are no stranger to cold winters that drive frozen lake phenomenons, a polar vortex can kick the required conditions into overdrive.

This heightens the chances of spotting these strange beauties and means that heavy coats, warm gloves and hats, and sturdy boots are required clothing for the tour. If you are planning to do that, there are a few more amazing things to see!

Shelf Ice - Lake Michigan
Shelf Ice | photo via Tom Gill

Other Freaky Winter Formations Around Lake Michigan

More frozen Lake Michigan phenomenons develop on and around the wondrous Lake Michigan because of the great polar vortex. Here’s a look at what you could see when visiting the lake during the winter.

Shelf Ice

On Lake Michigan’s southern shores, there are places where shelf ice forms. This extends as far south as Northern Indiana (as the lake touches its borders). Many people like to visit the area because it’s a touch of what the Arctic region looks like, but it’s much closer to home.

Tahquamenon Falls
Tahquamenon Falls

Frozen Waterfalls

If you travel to the northern parts of Lake Michigan, you’ll get the chance to see frozen waterfalls. Yes, running waterfalls actually freeze and become one of nature’s most fascinating exhibits. You’re most likely to find them in the Upper Peninsula.

Manistique East Breakwater Light - Upper Peninsula Lighthouses
Manistique East Breakwater Light | photo via @_sovereign_photography_

Ice-Covered Lighthouses

One of the highlights of visiting the Great Lakes is seeing the many lighthouses that safely guide ships to shore. During winter, many of the lighthouses along Lake Michigan’s shores are draped in thick layers of ice.

With each high-crashing wave that splashes against a lighthouse, a new icy layer is added to that spectacular coating that sightseers have come to appreciate. Give it a couple of months into the season to be sure that you’ll see a few ice-covered lighthouses.

Eben Ice Caves - Eben Junction, Michigan
Eben Ice Caves | photo via

Ice Caves

While the most popular Michigan ice caves are located in the Upper Peninsula — Eben ice caves and Grand Island ice caves — more ice caves have occasionally formed along Lake Michigan’s shoreline near Leland and the Leelanau Peninsula in recent years.

Ice caves form when constant wave motion driven by wind creates cavities beneath the ice. Ice caves are not typically accessible by conventional means. In fact, they are usually accessible by water. So, you may need to make some arrangements to see them in a safe way.

Lake Michigan In Winter
Lake Michigan | photo via Kristi Murphy

Stay Safe While Enjoying Frozen Lake Michigan Phenomenons

If you decide that beautiful ice oddities should be on your winter bucket list, keep in mind that water and ice can be dangerous. If you are traveling to Lake Michigan, observe proper safety rules.

In most cases, it’s okay to look. However, stepping onto the ice or touching jagged surfaces isn’t safe. Put safety first every time, and you’re sure to have a good time!

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