Community waits for ice to thicken before playing on Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is seen here on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Every year, for decades, Mirror Lake has frozen over later and later in the season. This season has followed that trend, making the lake off limits — so far — to people used to playing on it during the wintertime.

What’s happening to Mirror Lake is mirrored in lakes across the Adirondacks and the world. As the climate warms, the pattern of ice coverage on the lake has incrementally shifted, meaning fewer days when the lake is frozen over and a later-season freeze.

Brendan Wiltse, water quality director at the Adirondack Watershed Institute, has maintained the Mirror Lake Ice Record since 2015. Locals have kept track of the ice cover on this lake for generations — Mirror Lake has one of the longest-running ice records in the state, dating back to 1903.

The record shows that, on average, this beloved waterbody at the heart of the village now freezes over more than two weeks later than it did in the early 1900s, according to Wiltse.

“It’s a trend that we’re seeing in lakes across the northern hemisphere,” he said Wednesday, Jan. 6. “It’s tied back to the warmer climate. For Mirror Lake, we’re seeing a primary shift in ice cover and a later freeze date.”

The Lake Placid Toboggan Chute as seen on Jan. 6, 2021 (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The amount of time that Mirror Lake stays frozen is declining, too — the lake is typically frozen about 24 fewer days now than it was in the early 1900s.

That means fewer days residents and visitors can play on Mirror Lake, which can be just as popular in the winter as it is in the summer. Dog sled rides, cross-country skiing, skating on the lake’s skate path and playing hockey are all favorite outdoor recreation activities on Mirror Lake. When the weather cooperates, holiday crowds between Christmas and New Year’s Day are attracted to the ice. Not this year.

This season, Mirror Lake froze over early on, and then it thawed. But it was thin ice. On Saturday, Dec. 26, an unidentified man broke through the ice a short distance from shore and fell into the water. His fall and self-rescue were captured by an Ausable River Association webcam.

More recently ice has begun to form again on the lake, though according to North Elba Park District Manager Butch Martin, there was only about 3 to 4 inches of ice on the surface as of Tuesday, Jan. 5. Martin, with help from the Lake Placid Police Department, measures the thickness of the lake nearly every day using a chain saw to cut a hole in the ice.

The town keeps track of the ice thickness because the North Elba Park District operates a toboggan chute on the lake every winter, and normally, that attraction doesn’t open until there’s at least 12 inches of ice on the lake, according to Martin. The town doesn’t give the OK for ice skating and ice hockey on the lake until there’s at least 6 inches of solid ice.

“We’re a little behind right now, but that’s not unusual, especially in the last couple of years,” Martin said. “We were doing really well up until that Christmas thaw and freeze-back. The thaw wasn’t quick. It took a couple of days before the ice tightened up. That snowfall came and slowed the ice formation.”

The Mirror Lake ice record, historically, hasn’t included information on how many times the ice thaws and re-freezes over in a season, according to Wiltse. That’s something that he started to keep track of when he took over in 2015, however. Wiltse said there was a similar season to this one back in 2017.

These gradual shifts in ice cover on Mirror Lake have a variety of effects. According to a report from the AuSable River Association, reduction in ice cover can cause less light available in the water column, impacting algal and aquatic plant growth; and it has the potential to influence the timing of the lake’s turnover, which impacts the amount of oxygen in the lake and by extension the fish population.

At the surface level, locals are seeing the impact firsthand. It could be some time before the town’s toboggan chute opens for the season, and for now, the town is recommending that everyone stay off of the lake’s surface until the ice thickens.

“We ask that you discourage people from going anywhere on the lake that doesn’t look clear or hasn’t been traveled on or attempted to be cleared,” the park district wrote in an ice condition update Tuesday. “Keeping people off will 1) allow ice to form without ruts and banks and 2) be safe for all.”

Lake Placid lake, as of Tuesday, was “still pretty much wide open,” according to the park district.

Representatives of the Lake Placid Police Department and Lake Placid Fire Department, which sometimes respond for rescues at the lake, were not immediately available for comment by press time on Wednesday.

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