Ice Rings in Lake Michigan

January 24th, 2013 at 2:07 am by under Bill's Blog, Weather

   Several people have sent me this video of ice rings or “ice doughnuts” in Lake Michigan.  There’s more pictures here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.   The phenomena may be related to ice balls that formed earlier.    I am not the expert here, I can only offer a guess as to their cause.  I’ll say that the ice around the outside is caused by water lapping over the edge of an original ball or plate of ice.  These have the ability to spin around, so at times they are “facing the wind” and at times a certain edge is on the east side of the west wind.  Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve seen them before or have a better explanation.   Pretty cool to see, though.

26 Responses to “Ice Rings in Lake Michigan”

  1. Jon Macomber says:

    I live right by the damn downtown in Grand Rapids, and have seen the same things piling up in the Grand River.

  2. Dee says:

    This is a similar thing but in rivers. Perhaps it is the same cause but instead of circles or pans the rough surf of the lake prevents a solid center from forming. Maybe a science dept at a college could research this?

    1. GunLakeDeb says:

      Taken from the Wiki article:
      Ice discs form on the outer bends in a river where the accelerating water creates a force called ‘rotational shear’, which breaks off a chunk of ice and twists it around.[5] As the disc rotates, it grinds against surrounding ice — smoothing into a circle.

      I think what forms on Lake Michigan is just ice sheets rounded by the action of the waves?

  3. Skot says:


  4. Rebecca says:

    Pancake Ice

    Predominantly circular pieces of ice from 30cm–3m in diameter, and up to 10cm in thickness (unrafted), with raised rims due to the pieces striking against one another. It may be formed on a slight swell from grease ice, shuga or slush or as the result of the breaking of ice rind, nilas or, under severe conditions of swell or waves, of grey ice.

    A common process of sea ice development in the Antarctic is “the pancake cycle”. The pancakes start with a diameter of tens of centimetres, but through wind and wave action they aggregate with loose frazil crystals to increase in diameter, and raft with other pancakes to increase in thickness. In this manner the pancakes can rapidly grow to a few metres in diameter and up to 1 m thick. Eventually the pancakes can freeze together into larger floes or a consolidated ice cover.

  5. Andreas Ekbom says:

    I belive those things are called pancake-ice. They are quite common here in my Neck of the Woods (baltic sea, Sweden).

    I could link to lengthy explainations on how they are formed, sadly those explainations are only availible in Swedish.
    There is a short article about them on Wikipedia,

  6. Cindy says:

    I wonder if they form when there is relatively little wind, or low temperatures. When there is a lot of wind at Lake Michigan, don’t those huge waves freeze in place?

  7. Cindy says:

    Strange circles have once again appeared in the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Siberia, as spotted by astronauts aboard the International Space Station this April. News reports described the ice rings as a puzzling phenomenon.

    But experts say they can explain the mystery, and it’s not aliens — methane gas rising from the lake floor represents the likely culprit.

    Methane emissions can create a rising mass of warm water that begins swirling in a circular pattern because of the Coriolis force, or the phenomenon caused by the Earth’s rotation that also helps create cyclones.

    “Once the water mass reaches the underside of the ice on the surface of the lake, the warm water melts the ice in a ring shape,” said Marianne Moore, a marine ecologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who has spent much time studying Lake Baikal with Russian researchers. The lake is the largest (by volume) and deepest fresh water lake on Earth.

    The latest ring patterns included a circle of thin ice with a diameter of 2.7 miles (4.4 km), although the circular patch was becoming a hole of open water. Astronauts spotted similar ice circles in both 1985 and 1994, and satellites have also made sightings over the past years.

    This phenomenon is nothing new to the Russian government, which has documented circle sightings on an official Ministry of Natural Resources Web site.

    “Interestingly, the government is also warning people that abnormally high emissions of methane may occur in these areas in the summer and fall, posing risks for ships,” Moore told LiveScience.

  8. Amanda says:

    From wikipedia: Ice discs form on the outer bends in a river where the accelerating water creates a force called ‘rotational shear’, which breaks off a chunk of ice and twists it around.[5] As the disc rotates, it grinds against surrounding ice — smoothing into a circle.[2] A relatively uncommon phenomenon, one of the earliest recordings is of a slowly revolving disc was spotted on the Mianus River and reported in a 1895 edition of Scientific American.[6][7]

    Here is the article:

    I live in Holland… might have to swing over by the lake today to check this out!

    1. Robert Swafford says:

      Amanda gives the most accurate explanation. I used to live on Little Bay de Noc and these would to be visible as the night temps would drop below the 0 degree Fahrenheit level and then would stop developing as the temp would rise above freezing. When the temperature would go down and stay down then these circles would all freeze and solidify together. But this ice as it is first developing can be very misleading especially if it is covered by snow.
      In the late December and January, February when it gets the coldest it was very common to hear the Ice in Lake Michigan making loud thunderous crashing from the pressure cracks colliding together as it piles up underneath the preexisting ice pack.

  9. Yup (Grandville) says:

    I see these every year, usually out in the channels at the big lake

    1. michael g (SE GR) says:

      Yeah, the one time I saw these was in the Grand Haven channel several years ago.

      1. Yup (Grandville) says:

        I have a picture some years back from north shore Grand Haven where these were perfect. I’ll dig it up and post to report it when I get home.

  10. shari says:

    I have pica from last year of ice rings from the Marina in manistee

  11. shari says:

    Sorry. I meant I have pics

  12. shari says:

    I figured they were from the bubbles or foam and then froze

  13. INDY says:

    Ice Pancakes….INDYY…

  14. Jen Thomas says:

    Would that be open water for ducks & geese?

  15. Marti B (Grandville area) says:

    Very interesting!! :)

  16. GunLakeDeb says:

    One of the pictures mentions how noisy they are! I can imagine – last Saturday night, as the wind was tearing apart the ice on Gun Lake – it made a heckuva lot of noise, with chunks of ice clacking and crashing against each other. Then, when it refroze Sunday night – you could actually hear it freeze! It sounds like Rice Krispies – kind of a sizzle-pop! sound. The next morning, on the fresh ice, my nieces and I skipped stones across the surface, to hear it “chirp”. Once it’s thick, it makes expansion cracks that sound like a gunshot followed by thunder.

    Until I lived on a lake – I would never have though of ice as being noisy!

  17. Maria Dryfhout says:

    It is called Pancake Ice.
    Very common @ Holland State Park … Holland, MI

  18. Jack says:

    Another Example of GOD’ S, Awesome CREATION ! :-)

  19. Mike says:

    Thanks for the hits to my photo, and more importantly, for not stealing my image like so many “media” people think is appropriate…

    Lake Michigan…The Greatest Lake.

  20. Jeff says:

    Very interesting, but a lot of your photo links are from 2008. I thought they would be from this week.

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