New video shows danger and beauty of Lake Michigan shelf ice; people can see it for themselves at events on Indiana Dunes State Park pavilion rooftop


A group stands on the shore, a safe distance from the shelf ice.

By Ken Kosky

Shelf ice is a cold-weather phenomenon that occurs when cold temperatures freeze small areas of an open lake, forming float ice. This ice will build up over time and be pushed to shore by waves, eventually accumulating on top of the beach, forming shelf ice.

Unlike a pond or a small lake that freezes over, the shelf is not a uniform sheet of ice. Created by the wind and waves, the shelf ice is a jumble of ice chunks pushed onto each other, but there is nothing stable in the pile. The individual pieces are not initially connected; they only float upon the water surface and rest upon each other. Many become jammed together but throughout the structure, there are pockets of air. Because of the uneven surface and possible air holes throughout shelf ice, the ice may give way unexpectedly, making it unsafe to walk on.

Thad Donovan always thought the shelf ice that forms along Lake Michigan’s shoreline was both beautiful and dangerous, but he didn’t know how right he was until he used his remote-control helicopter to get an aerial view at Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton.

“Working with the state park’s assistance and permission, I got views from the lake side of the shelf ice, which few people see and it’s enlightening. It falls off like a cliff and has big cracks, and any of those cracks could break off at any time and you could fall in,” Donovan said.

Fortunately, people don’t need to risk their lives to see the shelf ice, which is amazing this year because of the frigid winter.

Donovan’s video is posted at the end of this blog and can also be viewed on Indiana Dunes Tourism’s winter page .

Donovan, who is president of Smith Donovan Marketing & Communications in Chesterton, does a lot of video work on the ground for clients. But the aerial video is a hobby made possible by advancements in remote-control technology. New quadcopters (with four propellers) with video cameras are more affordable and easier to use.

“Although these quadcopters are fairly easy to fly, they are still potentially dangerous. They are not toys and should be taken seriously,” Donovan said.

Shelf Ice Exploration events set for February at Indiana Dunes State Park

People are invited to get their own aerial view of the beautiful shelf along Lake Michigan at one of two special programs planned for February at Indiana Dunes State Park.

The Shelf Ice Exploration events are set for 2 p.m. CST Saturday, March 1 and 2 p.m. CST Saturday, March 22 at the Indiana Dunes State Park  pavilion.

People are invited to meet a naturalist at the beach pavilion for a look at the formation of shelf ice and winter along the beach. The presentation will end with a look at the shelf ice from a high vantage point — atop the pavilion.

“I think there is an amazing beauty to the shelf ice. It’s an arctic-like landscape,” said Brad Bumgardner, interpretive naturalist at the state park.

“People can get a better perspective of the shelf ice (from the pavilion rooftop) without walking on the shelf ice.”

Check out the shelf ice while you can

This winter’s conditions have resulted in amazing-looking shelf ice. In addition to watching the aerial video and going to the Shelf Ice Exploration events, the public can view the shelf ice daily from Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Park officials just remind people never to walk on the shelf ice, but rather to observe it from the beaches or dunes.

For more information about the Indiana Dunes, click here.  Click here for more information about Smith Donovan.



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