BEMIDJI - It's no joke - ice could be off Lake Bemidji by April Fool's Day, if not before, according to state and local officials.
If this occurs, Lake Bemidji will break its earliest ice out record, which was set on April 6, 2010. On average, ice has melted off the lake around April 26.
Determining ice out on a lake varies among the individuals who keep track of it. Some determine ice out is when the lake is completely free of ice. For others, ice out is defined when 90 percent of the lake is free of ice.
John Fylpaa, naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park, has kept track of ice out dates on Lake Bemidji since the mid-1990s. He considers ice out as being when a person can travel by boat from one end of the lake to the other without being hampered by ice.
"It doesn't have to be completely free of ice," he said. "There may be some slushy ice in one corner of the lake, but it wouldn't hamper a boat on the lake."
When ice on Lake Bemidji turns a dark shade of gray, Fylpaa said he will drive around Lake Bemidji to monitor the condition of the ice. A sure tell sign the ice is about to melt completely, he said, is when it turns clear after it has turned dark.
"Once it turns clear, it becomes more buoyant and floats up," he said. "Then it will begin breaking up because it has lost its structure and more light can pass through it. You can break it up pretty easily at that point."
Despite this week's cooler nighttime temperatures, the powerful wind gusts that have been blowing through the area have helped erode the ice, Fylpaa said. Any amount of rainfall will speed up the process, he added.
He predicts ice out will be April 1, the same day the Bogs and Logs Chapter of the Minnesota Master Naturalist program will host an Ice Out Ice Cream Social at 12:30 p.m. at the waterfront in Bemidji.
Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, checked in with Fylpaa on Tuesday find out if Lake Bemidji was free of ice yet.
Boulay's job is to gather ice out dates from lakes throughout Minnesota to update the Minnesota Climatology Working Group's historical log of ice out dates. The initiative, a collaboration between the DNR's Division of Ecological and Water Resources and the University of Minnesota, started 30 years ago.
Because the definition of ice out varies from person to person, Boulay makes an effort to contact the same individuals each year to maintain a consistent record.
"Ice is off lakes three weeks to a month earlier this year in northern Minnesota," Boulay said. "Many are breaking early ice out records."
Henry Drewes, regional fisheries manager with the Minnesota DNR, said several factors played a role in why ice melted off Lake Bemidji sooner this year. The prolonged fall season meant ice did not form until later. Mild winter temperatures did not produce as much snow and therefore the ice did not get as thick. Also, he said, warmer springtime temperatures and recent rainfalls helped erode the ice sooner.
Drewes said the Bemidji area has seen tremendous springtime temperature swings in the past four years.
In 2009, ice out on Lake Bemidji came on April 27. In 2010, the lake broke the earliest ice out record. Last year, ice out did not occur until April 28. This year, the earliest ice out record could again be broken.
Gull Lake near Brainerd and Lake Itasca both reported ice out on Monday. Lake LaSalle, west of Becida, reported ice out on March 23.
As of Tuesday, ice out had not yet been reported on Lake Mill Lacs or Leech Lake, Boulay said.
People want to know when lakes are free of ice for several reasons, Boulay added. Cabin owners are anxious to put their docks in the water and anglers become curious to know how warm the water will be by the time the walleye season opens.
But an earlier spring could have both positive and negative effects for wildlife and recreationalists.
Fylpaa believes an earlier spring could mean a better fisher opener for anglers because water will warm earlier. This means fish could move into their spawning areas earlier in April and be ready to feed in time for the opening of the walleye season.
But Drewes said sometimes an earlier spring is not ideal for fish. While warming temperatures will often trigger fish to spawn earlier, a prolonged cold snap in April, which has occurred in past years, could have a negative impact on younger fish.
However, early ice out means DNR officials will be able to get boat accesses and docks ready earlier, Drewes said.
Lakefront owners should be cautious about putting docks out before the lake becomes completely ice free, Drewes added, because high winds can push ice onto shorelines - damaging trees and equipment.
A chart of when ice out has occurred historically on lakes throughout the state can be viewed online at http://climate.umn.edu.
An interactive map of current ice out dates on lakes around the state can be viewed online at www.dnr.state.mn.us/ice_out/index.html.