Incidents in November and December 2012

November 23, 2012 , Ascot Corner, Quebec:  A 9 year old boy and  his Grandfather (64) died on a private pond.  It appears that the grandson very much wanted to skate and the Grandfather took him to the dock on the pond late on what had been a warm day. The grandson got on the ice first, pushed his puck out on the ice, followed it and broke through roughly 100 feet from shore.  The grandfather tried to rescue the grandson and the grandmother suffered hypothermia trying to assist the rescue. 

Contributing factors and comments:

  • The previous six days were sunny and had maximum temperatures in the low 40's early in the week, reaching 50 degrees on Friday the 21st.  Every night got below freezing,  making the ice look better than it was going to be later in the day.   From the pictures it looks like the ice was as thin as a little over an inch. Based on its dull, dark grey color it looked to be significantly weakened by thawing.

 

 

  • The dock they left from is on the south side of the pond and there is a  row  tall conifer trees about 100 ft south of the pond.   In late November the trees would have cast a midday shadow about 50-100 feet onto the ice.   That might have left the ice near the dock stronger than the ice further out.

It is likely that lifejackets would have kept the victims on the surface with their faces out of the water until rescue personel could get to them.  Without flotation, in a few minutes, swimming incapacitation can make it so  a person can't keep their mouth and nose out of the water.  Emergency Rescue often takes half an hour or more to get to a victim. This is a common theme in many of the incidents described below.  Life jackets can save many lives  but they need to become widely seen as standard equipment for going  on ice before their use will become widespread enough to make much of a difference.

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December 5, 2012, Oxford Maine (link 1):  A 17 year old boy (link 2)  was checking his beaver traps on Chapman Pond.  He fell through the ice around 2:30PM.  His girlfriend was watching from shore and called 911.  The rescue team had difficulty reaching the victim  probably because of the ice conditions. 

Possible Contributing factors:

  • Temperatures got up to 52 the day of the accident as well as two days prior.  It was above freezing for about 30 hours before the accident.
  • This is very early season ice which is well known for being thin and variable.   Two inch ice does not take long to weaken in above freezing conditions.
  • Swampy areas and edges of swamps often have thin ice

 

  A life jacket would have had a good chance of saving the day.  Ice claws probably would have as well. It is significantly easier to claw through weak ice to get to better ice than trying to swim and break your way through it.

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December 11, 2012, Bridge Creek WI: A 60 year old man fell through the ice on a farm pond, apparently trying to herd some ducks that were on the ice.  He was alone and Rescue was not called until he did not return to the house at the end of the day. 

Contributing Factors

  • Nobody was within earshot when he fell in.
  • The weather history was probably a factor.  A plausible sequence of weather events is: the pond may have frozen as early as November 26-27.  Any ice would have been thinned or melted in the thaw from 11/29 through 12/6. On 12/9 it snowed several inches which would have submerged any ice setting up a layered ice situation and stopping further growth of the main ice sheet.  Additional light snow on the 10th and 11th could have inhibited further freezing of the slush layer under the snow. Ice in this condition often looks like midwinter ice but it lacks a thick, cold ice base to provide strength.  What ever base there is tends to have variable thickness.


 

A life jacket, ice claws and  some sort of a test pole would have made this fatality considerably less likely as would having a companion on shore. 

When it has been warm recently, especially when the ice is new and thin it is very important to know the weather history and to be well parepared for  avoiding falling through and prepared to self rescue if you do. 

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December 23, 2012-Hayward WI: A 55 year old man, alone, on his snowmobile, broke through the ice on the Chippewa Flowage as he was checking his traps.  His body was recovered the next day.

Contributing factors and comments:

  • Based on MODIS satellite images the Chippewaw Flowage appeared to be open water on December 4 and frozen and snow covered on the 8th (it probably came in on the 5th).  
     
  • The Chippewaw Flowage has a lot of shallow water (mean depth: 15 feet, max depth: 92 feet). Shallow areas surrounded by deeper water tend to have thin ice or open water associated with them.    An insulating layer of snow significantly reduces the rate of cooling of the ice by the air and allows a faster rate of under ice erosion.  

  • The temperatures after the 5th (the probable freeze up date) were cold enough to easily make 5+ inches of ice by the 23rd if the weather were clear and there was no snow.   It was cloudy roughly half the time and  it snowed  on seven of these days.   Both clouds and snow slow ice growth.  Clouds reduce radiational cooling and a snow cover insulates the ice. 
  • The recommended mimimum thickness of cold, solid ice needed for a snowmobile is 5".  The breakthrough thickness is a little over half of that.  In addition to snow insulating the ice and under water erosion causing there are many other reasons for finding thin or weak ice.  One of the more likely ones is a folded pressure ridge.  In cold weather they often have a thin layer of new ice over open water or a deep pool.  With a little frost or snow on top they can be very hard to spot.

The man in this accident was a very experienced ice traveler.  Even so, being out alone, on a sled, in late December is fairly high risk.  I do not know if the victim had a  life jacket and ice claws.  They would make it more likely to be able to self rescue.

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Open water on the east end of Rangeley Lake Jan 1. Picture taken from Rt 4 (the main route into town).

December 30, 2012, Rangeley Maine:  Four snowmobilers, all in their 40's, drowned after driving into a mile in diameter open area in the lake at night with blowing snow.  The teenage son of one of the victims was able to jump off his sled as it was going in.   He called 911 and went for help.  It was the worst snowmobile accident ever in Maine. 

I visited Rangeley shortly after the accident.  Click here for a report.

Contributing  factors include:

  • Darkness and blowing snow.  This is a big lake with few nighttime points of reference.
  • Although the open water was easy to see during the day, I do not know how aware the victims were of its presence.  Driving snowmobiles into open  water at night accounted for almost 70% of the 19 snowmobile-ice deaths in the 2013 season.
  • It is thought the victims were crossing City Cove to get around the town of Rangeley ( Maine state law does not allow riding on plowed roads).  The city cove route is about a mile.  The other options are to trailer the sleds through town or use the trail system (about 20 miles). 
  • The last open water on the lake froze later than typical (but nearly the same date as the 2012 season).
  • Flotation snowmobile suits/life jackets and ice claws might have saved the day for some or all of the victims.

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January 2013