I will first describe the main effects of the ice boom on Lake Erie and how this happens. I will need to describe the freezing process so that you understand we are not dealing with pure drinking water ice. The ice you see on the surface actually forms well below. As water chills it becomes denser and sinks. When it reaches the moment it goes from water to ice, it freezes on particulate matter. This is similar to how snow flakes form. Organic material in the water column, is “captured” and floated to the surface in the( less dense than water) ice. Ice also forms on the bottom (anchor ice) and when sufficient in size, breaks free. It will “raft” the material to the surface or allow it to move along the bottom. The depths at which this occurs is often in alignment with the most productive areas of the lake.
Lake Erie is said to be more fertile and productive than all of the other Great Lakes combined. While this is wonderful, it means that is has a huge amount of spent fuel or left over bio-mass to deal with. Traditionally and naturally the ice movement was the perfect mechanism to transport this out of Lake Erie. The ice conveyor system kept things moving. It carried the load and nature relied on it. There is no doubt the ecosystem has evolved to this ancient process. Everything that lived within these waters was well aware and in tune with the moment when ice began to break up and flow. That was the signal to the start of a new season and another year. The rush was on to reproduce! Days and even hours became crucial to the survival of all its’ life forms. When the ice is held up to melt in place, windows of opportunity are lost. Migrations are stopped. Species collide. The growing season this far north is already limited. To deny the crucial sunlight penetration “the source of all life” into the waters, surely has an effect on the total outcome. Next, the great ice sheet “compresses” against the boom, it condenses and then finally releases the organic payload as the melting continues. This puts the biomass back into the system that it was removed from. It is not welcome, needed or usable. It decays in the warming shallow waters. As the decay takes place it consumes vast amounts of oxygen. These oxygen starved areas become dead zones covering 100 square miles or more. Then, the oxygen free anaerobic condition, facilitates the formation of the bacterium botulism. The size and extent of these outbreaks has gone on for far to long, but not before the use of an ice boom. Tens of thousands of birds and fish die from botulism. As the ever increasing mass of waste decays more outbreaks are sure to follow. If the conveyor were allowed to run this would not happen. Botulism is a symptom that something is terribly wrong. Another aspect of the ice movement benefit is the near shore action. When the ice boom isn’t in place a natural ice arch forms anyway. However, it eventually collapses and movement begins. Along the food shelves and shorelines this ice makes physical contact and transmits the energy of movement into clearing, scraping, scouring and sculpting the bottom. This is natures way of rejuvenating spawning grounds for the fish. The ice also was the primary method that aquatic plant life relied on to flourish. Today a thick layer of ooze covers most of the prime spawning areas rendering them unusable. Eggs sink into the detritus and suffocate. Beaches are disappearing because the ice no longer has the momentum required to “bulldoze” the sand and gravel back up on shore. A note for those unfamiliar with the properties of ice, it is nearly the same density as water. It barely floats. If you see ice 1 foot high above the waters surface there is over 9 feet below. Ice scour on the bottom has been documented to depths of over 60 feet. This ice carries a heavy load of solids that it picks up on the push up the shore. When the ice melts it deposits the load above the water line. The sand and gravel replace that which is washed down by wave action. The organic material fertilizes the shorelines for plant life to take root into, which further stabilizes the shorelines. There has always been a give and take at the surf zone. This is the equilibrium of force that determines where the shorelines are and their general make up. The Ice Boom has eliminated the replenishment half of the process, which results in a net loss.
I will not bother to comment on the past fears and claims that the winters are colder or longer. This was the limit of concern from the early days of the booms use. It is the least of our worries and should not be used as any further distraction. I do believe and it is obvious, that the reflective properties of ice held in place longer than would remain naturally, would surely diminish the total sum of light penetration that is essential to start the food chain up each year. Photosynthesis can’t happen until the sunlight penetrates the surface. How this was ever overlooked in the Environmental Impact Studies is questionable, if not suspicious. The extra ice coverage time represents a considerable percentage of the growing season. For example, if you lost 15 days to extended ice coverage of a 150 day season, that is a 10% reduction in productivity. We may be losing 30 days out of 120 for a 25% loss. Regardless of the range, we know we are having an effect and it is not what nature had in mind. I would like to add that Erie has historically failed to freeze about 6 times per century. It seems to be able to survive the random lack of ice occasionally. I could hypothesize that maybe that leads to a bumper crop year of turtles and is still useful in some way to the system. To go for 50 plus years is more than it can stand. The dynamic equilibrium of forces at work are now trying to re-balance themselves. The carrying capacity of Lake Erie has been diminished because it can’t get rid of waste as in the past. The system or conveyor is stagnating. Lake Erie has resisted eutrophication for so long because the system worked so well. Without the ice exodus Lake Erie behaves like a farm pond with no outlet. With the approach of global warming, we may see the number of failures to freeze go up, thereby making each ice flow all the more important. Time will tell on that.
Finally, a Lake Erie observation and comment I’d like to point out is that it functions like 3 lakes with the western, central and eastern basins. I believe the rampant slime outbreaks and algal blooms on the western basin are compounded if not caused by the stopping of the Erie Ice conveyor. The shallow waters would suffer the effects more and faster than the rest. This may be a distinct domino like problem. I am aware of nutrient loading but a stalled conveyor isn’t helping. No other solutions have yet to be offered. While the frame work of my study is solid, it is far from complete. There are areas within these boundaries that certainly leave room for more research. However, nothing will be found that would mitigate or justify the damage being done by the use of an ice boom. Only more negative aspects would be found or explained. Lake Erie is said to have an approximate 3 year fill rate. I believe that the water in motion or “play” is a better indicator of turn over. Studies claimed that about 850 square miles of ice passes without the boom. I believe it would be more on the order of 3,000 square miles for the full season. This is arguable, but what is not, is the difference in pressure reached by full ice movement. When the whole ice field gets moving there is a lot of kinetic energy being transferred to the bottoms and the shorelines. This is the irreplaceable action that has allowed Erie to be the most productive of all the Great Lakes. The miniscule 250 square miles of ice that is currently released is meaningless. There has to be sufficient ice to reach from shore to shore to develop the pressures necessary to do the required work.