The 43rd Annual Islands Ice Fishing Derby on Lake Champlain was cancelled Saturday morning, February 11th, following warm weather that led to dangerously thin ice resulting in the deaths of three anglers.
Just as the derby was kicking off, the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department issued a request that it be cancelled immediately due to poor ice conditions. “All ice anglers are asked to get off the ice,” event organizers posted to Facebook at 8 am.
According to the Vermont State Police, emergency crews received a report at about 7:10 am Saturday that an enclosed side-by-side UTV operating on Keeler Bay in South Hero broke through the ice with two people on board.
Seventy-one-year-old John Fleury, of Williamstown, was pulled from the water and brought to shore by the South Hero Fire Department where he received emergency medical care and was taken by ambulance to University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, where he was later pronounced dead. His older brother, Wayne Fleury, 88, of East Montpelier, was subsequently located inside the UTV by a diver from Colchester Technical Rescue and was pronounced deceased on scene.
The deaths came after a third man died on Thursday, February 9th while ice fishing on Lake Champlain in Grand Isle. That angler, 62-year-old Wayne Alexander from Grand Isle, left his home to go ice fishing shortly before noon Thursday. When he failed to return as expected by around 6 pm, a relative went to look for him.
The relative located his truck parked in the fishing access at Grand Isle State Park at about 8:30 pm and called emergency crews. Following a search, Alexander was located in the water at about 9:30 pm wearing a flotation suit. He was pronounced dead at the University of Vermont Medical Center, police said.
The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is advising the public to stay off the ice on Lake Champlain due to unsafe conditions.
Climate Change Leading To Thinner Ice
As with all lakes in the North Country, climate change has dramatically affected Lake Champlain ice cover. Before 1950, Lake Champlain almost always iced over; since 1950 the number of years the lake failed to ice over has steadily increased.
In the 1960s and 1970s there were three years the lake did not freeze over. In the 1980s that number extended to 5 years; in the 1990s the lake only froze completely three years. Since 2016, the lake has frozen over completely only once.
The National Weather Service, whose lake ice records stretch back to 1816, and the Lake Champlain Basin Program both confirm that the frequency of the lake freezing is dropping off significantly.
“This is likely an effect of increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and an effect of climate change,” Matthew Vaughan, chief scientist at the Lake Champlain Basin Program, recently told WCAX, a local television station. “We all know this is a global problem and we’re not immune to it in the Lake Champlain Basin,” he said.
If the trend continues Vaughan said, “in about 2050 we can expect the lake to freeze over just once a decade.”
On January 26th two snowmobiles went through thin ice on Peck Lake in the town of Bleecker, Fulton County. A dive team located the body of 42-year-old Todd Wheaton of Johnstown, NY about five hours after the search began.
New York State Forest Rangers have also issued a warning about thin ice, noting that Forked Lake and Long Lake in the Adirondacks, popular with snowmobilers, have dangerously thin ice.
No ice should be trusted as safe. Temperatures this week are forecast to be 10 to 15 degrees above normal for this time of year according to the National Weather Service in Burlington. A NWS Facebook post Saturday said ice thickness is highly variable due to “well above normal temperatures” over the past two months.
Illustrations, from above: Lake Champlain; and ice thickness chart courtesy Maine DOT.