Ice Rescue and Climate Change

What happened to sweater weather?

Part of the challenge for ice rescue and climate change is the unpredictability in the relationship. Some years, winter looks the same as it did when our grandparents were kids. Other years… not so much. Think back to 2015/16, when the conditions that led to dozens of photos of shorts weather on Christmas Eve in Eastern Canada also led to unstable surface ice conditions throughout the region.

As temperatures continue to fluctuate and extreme weather events become regular occurrences, our situational awareness around ice rescue risks and hazards needs to shift. Conventional wisdom around ice formation and strength need to expand to include mid-season ice that is still troubled by unusually warm temperatures.

Raven Ontario Regional Manager, Dan Kirvan, and Ice Rescue instructor, Scott Brady, caught up with us to discuss what fluctuating temperatures mean to emergency responders and workers encountering frozen ice surfaces.

Raven: What hazards should personnel anticipate when encountering ice formed in warmer temperatures?

Dan: Warmer weather results in ice formation that is slow and poor.  This can be compounded if there is snowfall insulating this poorly formed base.

We see folks venturing out onto the ice because “it’s the middle of January and the ice is always good this time of year”.  Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom here isn’t as reliable as it used to be – ice rescue and climate change are a volatile combination. Before venturing out, test the ice to see how thick it really is.  Be more cautious than you normally would when the ice has not had long, sustained cold weather to form.

Scott: One of the biggest risks during warmer winters is traveling on ice in areas that are shallow, swampy and marshy.

Raven: Which work environments will be most affected by warm temperatures?

Scott: People tend to underestimate the level of risk when the water is shallow, and not take the steps they normally would to protect themselves when traveling on larger bodies of water. Where I live in Eastern Ontario, it’s not out of the ordinary to hear of snowmobiles breaking through in these types of areas.

With temperatures near freezing, the vegitation growing through the ice absorbs heat from the sun and radiates it out into the surrounding ice, causing it to freeze slowly and thaw quickly.

Dan: There can be set monitoring times of year for certain workers in the resource sector. If they miss these windows, they don’t get the data they need. But unfortunately, if the ice cover is not stable, they cannot perform this data gathering.

Field workers that constantly measure the river and reservoir levels are also at risk because they need to collect this data regularly for the overall management of the watershed.

Raven: What are some practical steps individuals can take to raise their awareness before venturing onto ice?

Dan: During a winter when temps are still hovering at or above zero on a regular basis, we need to test the ice every time we go out until we get consistently cold weather for stable ice sheets to develop. Don’t go out alone, and have a plan in place if something goes wrong.  Ensure that you are properly dressed and bring your rescue equipment with you…it is no good in the truck!

Scott: Proceed with caution. Check ice conditions, and wear and carry the proper gear. Even better – plan an alternate route.

Weak Ice by Bonnie Pryce