Sustainability Environment

Ice pancakes found along Chicago’s Lake Michigan

Story at a glance

  • Chicago’s shoreline of Lake Michigan is forming ice pancakes due to high ice coverage following weeks of freezing temperatures.
  • Ice pancakes are about 3 to 4 millimeters in diameter, with a slushy consistency that makes them easy to break apart.
  • They are likely to stick around through the winter season, until warmer spring and summer temperatures force the ice to begin melting.

A peculiar weather pattern is taking ahold of Chicago’s shoreline of Lake Michigan as ice in the shape of pancakes sit atop the frozen body of water. 

Chicago is experiencing a wave of frigid temperatures, with the month of January seeing dips as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s allowed for Lake Michigan to freeze over and develop ice pancakes, which are frozen, round disks most commonly found in the Arctic.  

Jake Sojda, AccuWeather meteorologist, said in an analysis of Lake Michigan’s ice pancakes, that freshwater must go below 32 degrees Fahrenheit to freeze over and to allow for ice pancakes to form. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculates that the Great Lakes ice coverage is currently at about 20 percent, while last year it only amounted to about 5 percent.  


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However, much of the U.S. has been experiencing below-zero temperatures, which can cause large bodies of water to act in strange ways. Once Lake Michigan reaches below zero temperatures, it freezes over, and through enough wave action, a solid sheet of ice is prevented from forming. 

Instead, waves cause the ice sheet to break up into smaller pieces, and as they move around, they become rounder in shape and transition into a pancake-like form. Sojda explained that as the ice pieces collide together, water splashes up around the edges of the ice and creates a thick border which makes the ice pancake’s edges look raised. 

Though they may look hard, ice pancakes are actually quite slushy and can be broken apart easily. 

One Chicago area resident caught the weather phenomenon in action, posting a video on Twitter that showed a pattern of circular ice covering Lake Michigan as far as the eye can see.  

The National Snow & Ice Data Center says people can expect the ice pancakes to stick around through the winter season, as once ice forms into sheet ice, it continues to grow. When temperatures warm up into the spring and summer time the first-year ice will eventually begin to melt. 


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