What Zero Ice on Lake Erie Means for Residents of Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island

The warmer weather brings a mixed bag to both ferry boat operators and to locals looking to have a bit of winter fun.

While certainly unusual, heading into January with zero ice cover on Lake Erie is not unprecedented. But it will have an effect on local islanders.

Before we get to the locals, let’s talk about the ice itself.

The total ice cover for the Great Lakes is currently at 9% and, like we said, it’s a flat zero on Lake Erie, according to James Kessler, a physical scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The average Lake Erie ice cover this time of year, Kessler says, is 20%.

“I would say that it is well below the average, but I don’t think it’s entirely unprecedented,” Kessler says. “That said, there’s a lot of variation from one year to the next.”

One such variation was seen in 2014 when a group of friends (shown in this photo) embraced the ice with a jog over to Put-in-Bay.

You’d think that this year would mean an extended season for ferry boat operators, but it’s not all about the ice.

Miller Ferries usually shuts down right around this time — and this year is no different, says Julene Market, who owns the ferry with her two brothers.

Sure, their fleet of ferries could glide right across the water to Put-in-Bay, but the docks will soon become too treacherous for both the crew and passengers.

“As it looks right now, Monday is going to be our last runs,” Market says. “Because what we have going on Tuesday and Wednesday are winds kicking up. Once you get these very cold lake temperatures combined with high winds, all that splash of the wave action and spray coats the docks and the decks and they’re ungainly to walk on.”

The Kelleys Island Ferry, in contrast, has docks that are sheltered from the fiercest winds.

“Normally we shut down about the second week of January, but we’re going to try to keep running at least till February, says veteran Kelly Island Ferry captain Eddie Ehrbar.

So who’s actually on these ferries this time of year? Contractors make up a large percentage of passengers. There are also a handful of people who commute to their jobs — or to school — on the mainland. They take the ferries until they stop running, then turn to short flights offered by Griffing Flying Service.

There are even a few tourists eager to see the islands in the quiet light of January.

Islanders typically use the ferries as long as possible before relying on flights for groceries or any business they may have on the mainland. Many of these folks have two cars — one for the island and one for the mainland, which they leave in long-term parking at Griffing’s Port Clinton airport.

Most of them have their second car at Griffing by now, notes Market. But every year there’s at least a couple who, well, miss the boat. In those cases, they rely on friends and neighbors.

Zooming the lens back a bit, Kessler says one year of low ice coverage doesn’t mean much. But he also points out that, in the 50 years his agency has been tracking Lake Erie ice, measurements show a roughly 5% decline in ice cover every decade. Most climate scientists, he adds, look at weather in 30-year increments to avoid reading too much into natural variability.

Given how shallow it is, Lake Erie can make up quickly for a slow start.

“There’s certainly plenty of time,” Kessler says, “for ice to form on Lake Erie.”

And, for most islanders, that’s exactly what they want — even if it means taking an airplane to their next doctor’s appointment.

“On a personal note, this year is a little disappointing for many islanders,” Market says. “By now, we’d really like to see some ice come in.”

And not just for ice fishing.

“It’s like a way of life over here,” Market says. “A whole variety of fun takes place once the ice fills in — ice parties, hockey. It becomes a whole relaxing winter recreation. Last year, we had maybe at most two or three weeks. Even then, the ice was not what we would call good ice.”

Ehrbar agrees. While he has a trip to Disney World planned with his family, he’s still hankering to get out on Lake Erie in his four-wheeler. 

“I could tell you that I am one of those who’s grumbling,” he says with a laugh. “I like ice.” 

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