Climate change impacting Lake Winnipesaukee ice-out and ice-in dates

Climate change impacting Lake Winnipesaukee ice-out and ice-in dates

LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, N.H. - Climate change is impacting weather patterns all around us, including milestones at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire's largest body of water.

"There is no place like it. The lake is the heart of New Hampshire," said Dave Emerson, a lifelong resident and owner of Emerson Aviation. "The lake [Winnipesaukee] is the lifeblood for tourism for the state. You're able to be one with nature and enjoy the quality of life you can have here."

That quality of life may be changing a bit, due to our changing climate. Weather is obviously important to that outdoor way-of-life. "It's everything," said Emerson.

From boating and skiing in the summer to ice fishing and pond hockey in the winter. "We are at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to the Big Lake," said Emerson. 

Since the 1970s, Emerson, and his father before him, have been flying over Lake Winnipesaukee. When temperatures start to fall below freezing, Emerson will take his Cessna 172 high above the lake, looking for ice growth.

What is Ice-Out?

There are two milestones for the lake each year -  Ice-in and Ice-out. Ice-in is defined as when the lake is completely frozen, specially "the broads," where the widest, deepest part of the lake is. These spots are usually last to freeze over.

You may think the end of the season, Ice-out, would be when the lake is free from ice. That's not correct. It's actually when the vessel Mt. Washington can navigate to all five of its ports of call -- Wolfeboro, Meredith, Weirs Beach, Alton Bay, and Center Harbor -- completely free of ice.

Emerson said that on an average year, Ice-out is mid-to-third week of April. "Within the last decade, we've had some early years, even records. You have thinner ice, mild winters and don't have the ice build up."

Changing ice-out dates

Emerson, by flying over the frozen lake, helps to maintain a dataset for Lake Winnipesaukee's Ice-out that dates back to 1888. Over that expansive time, the average Ice-out date has jumped an impressive 9 days -- from April 23 to April 14. Possibly more impressive, six of the top ten earliest Ice-out days have occurred in the last 20 or so years, the earliest Ice-out date being March 19, 2016.

Later freezing and earlier melting. That's tough for people who live for this time on the lake.

Lifestyle impact on Lake Winnipesaukee

"We're reminded every year why hockey is played indoors now," said Scott Crowder, commissioner of the Pond Hockey Classic. The huge outdoor tournament is usually held early February, which also happens to coincide with some of the latest ice-in dates in recent years. "We've been hosting this event since 2010, and every year it's a battle," said Crowder. 

"We're always coming up to the 11th hour of making the call. Is it safe? Can we get crews out there?" The Pond Hockey Classic crews have even gone so far as clearing snow off 14 acres of ice, and pumping water back onto the surface to keep the ice growing.

Ice Fishing Derby

2023's Pond Hockey Classic didn't have to worry about weak ice with temperatures on the lake well below zero. In fact, wind chills near -40° made for dangerously cold temperatures. Just a week later, the Meredith Rotary Ice Fishing Derby had to move their carnival-like atmosphere off the ice due to melting from temperatures soaring into the 50s.

"The rest of the state froze over, but sadly, Meredith Bay did not fair as well," said Ted Federo. "It did freeze over, but it wasn't really deemed safe."

The Ice Fishing Derby is a huge draw to so many in the area, attracting visitors from far and wide for more than 45 years. Weather and ice safety are the top concerns the Meredith Rotary have, and each go hand-in-hand.

Winter in New England is changing

Back with Dave Emerson, he took WBZ TV on a scenic flight over Lake Winnipesaukee to show how he makes his Ice-in and Ice-out calls, pointing out the coves and bays that tend to see some of the earliest ice formation.

According to Climate Central, winter is New England's fastest changing season, so adaption may be necessary. Pucks will still drop and lines will still be cast, and you can bet that Emerson will be flying over Lake Winnipesaukee.

"New Hamsphire.... there is nothing like it," he said.  

For stories about how winter is changing across the country, and to watch the documentary 'On the Dot' please visit Arctic melting foreshadows America's climate future

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