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What climate change means for the future of ice fishing in Minnesota

ice fishing
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
A 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that nearly 2 million people go out ice fishing every year, and spend a cumulative 38 million days and $178 million on ice fishing equipment annually.

We’ve all seen the videos. Blue-hued arctic ice melted by warmer weather weakens, breaks off and crashes into the sea.

As average global temperatures rise, cold places, like Minnesota and our neighbors to the north, are warming fastest. And while we may not have any glaciers or ice caps, we do have lots of ice on lakes and rivers in the winter, and scientists expect climate change to have effects on our ice — and our way of life, too.

Scientists have been documenting the loss of ice cover for years: a 2007 study found ice cover on water bodies in the Great Lakes region had decreased by about five days per decade since the 1970s. While there’s lots of research on what that means for the lakes themselves, less is known about the impact of that loss on humans.

That’s the subject of research led by a University of Minnesota researcher and published last year in Limnology and Oceanography Letters.


“One thing I kept coming to was, OK, we’re seeing these changes with the organisms or the water quality … but how could this affect people?” said Lesley Knoll, University of Minnesota Itasca station biologist and an author of the study.

Knoll and her colleagues studied the effects of inland ice cover — or lack thereof — on cultural institutions, like the traditional carrying of a John the Apostle statue across a lake between Switzerland and Germany during the Renaissance; ice roads in Canada; a Shinto ice ceremony in Japan and yes, ice fishing in Minnesota.

“Here in Minnesota, winter is really important to us,” Knoll said. “As we experience less reliable ice conditions, we’re probably going to see a loss to the cultural, social and economic benefits of ice-related winter activities.”

Ice impacts

Knoll and her colleagues got data on ice fishing tournaments — when they’ve been held, when they’ve been canceled and how many people have participated — going back to 2004 in both northern and central Minnesota.

Once the average winter air temperature reached about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, there were — no surprise — more cancellations, Knoll said. In the dataset, the cancellations were limited to central Minnesota — northern Minneseota temperatures don’t tend to get that warm.

Take 2015 as an example, when temperatures were unseasonably warm and about one in six ice fishing tournaments held in central Minnesota were canceled, according to the study.

“2015-2016 was one of those El Niño winters, it was very warm,” said Kenneth Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office. “That was the first time we really heard about hardships in the ice fishing resort community. We were really starting to hear complaints from the people who run the outfits themselves. There just wasn’t much of a winter.”

The data don’t go back far enough to analyze the impact of climate change on ice fishing, but with projections of average temperatures on the rise, the research doesn’t bode well for the sport.


Ice fishing is a cultural, social and economic phenomenon in parts of the U.S. that reliably see their lakes freeze over in the winter, Knoll said. A 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that nearly 2 million people go out ice fishing every year, and spend a cumulative 38 million days and $178 million on ice fishing equipment annually.

“It’s a very important kind of recreational activity, but also social activity for us. Especially in our really long winters, to have something to do outdoors and to do with our friends,” Knoll said.

It’s economically important, too. Lots of Minnesota resorts depend on ice anglers for winter revenue. The Brainerd Jaycees  Ice Fishing Extravaganza brings an estimated $1 million to the region each year (we’re guessing ice fishing brings economic benefit to the beer industry as well, but weren’t able to find figures).

Ice science

Ice cover is a robust measure of the way the climate is changing, said John Magnuson, a director emeritus of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an author of the paper.

“It’s useful as a miner’s canary to point out … not just in the Antarctic or Arctic, but inside and outside the Twin Cities, this is occurring right where you live and you are already being influenced by it,” he said. “The changes are occurring, and they’re occurring rapidly (and) on water bodies people live next to, play next to, ice skate on and so on.”

It’s not as simple as warmer temperatures equals worse ice, Blumenfeld said. It also has to do with precipitation, another thing that’s becoming less predictable as temperatures warm.

“If there’s a thin layer of ice on the lake and then it’s covered by snow, that’s really, really bad for ice formation,” Blumenfeld said. “Similarly, as the ice is freezing or melting, if you have a lot of wind, that just destroys ice.”

As temperatures warm, on average, changes to ice will be gradual.


“It isn’t a nice thing, that they’re always frozen and then bang, they’re never frozen,” Magnuson said. “No ice years begin to occur and become more common, and years in between when the ice isn’t safe in the winter, but you’re also going to have some really good ice years.”

That will make it harder to plan things like ice fishing tournaments, as it will be tough to predict months out whether the ice will sustain people, snowmobiles, trucks and ice fishing houses.

“We’re going to have to learn in Minnesota to be able to deal with this variable in our lives,” Magnuson said. “Especially for those people who still want to do ice things.”

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/20/2020 - 12:19 pm.

    Let me know when Minnesota does not have enough ice to go out and set up for an afternoon of fishing. When that happens I will worry about “Global Warming”, til then enjoy the fresh walleye.

    • Submitted by Jim Elwell on 01/21/2020 - 08:45 am.

      Bemidji-area ice conditions are bad this year. Very few houses on the ice.

      https://www.bemidjipioneer.com/4856926-Area-ice-conditions-create-rough-year-for-Minnesota-anglers

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2020 - 09:09 am.

        It’s not just Bemidji. It appears a good deal of the resorts on URL are gonna be closing up shop for the season. There’s many lakes in Central Mn that are inaccessible, even by snowmobile. There’ll be many millions in lost revenue this ice season, if we have an “unusal” summer season to follow, it could be curtains for a lot of small operators that have been able to hang on through the resort apocalypse by virtue of the ice fishing boom of the last decade.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/21/2020 - 01:53 pm.

        That issue is because we had so much snow before the lakes froze over. They didn’t get good ice and won’t now because of the snow cover. It has nothing to do with Climate Change.

        Btw, 2019 was one of the coldest years on record going back to 1895.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2020 - 04:01 pm.

          Gee it’s almost like precipitation trends and changes thereof MIGHT have something to do with climate… but no, I’m sure whistling past the graveyard will fix it.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/21/2020 - 04:33 pm.

          As the evidence piles up, just keep telling yourself it has nothing to do with climate change.

        • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 01/22/2020 - 11:42 am.

          More frequent high moisture storms with rain, ice, and snow are absolutely related to climate change.

        • Submitted by dennis Stark on 01/29/2020 - 09:12 pm.

          2019 was the 2nd warmest year in history. Only 2016 was warmer by .04 degees celsisus. The last 5 years have been the warmest in history, and the last decade set the record for the warmest decade in history.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/21/2020 - 04:44 pm.

      The lake in Wisconsin my folks live on has been cancelling/postponing events because the ice isn’t safe to fish on. When I was a kid, we were driving cars on it in January.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/22/2020 - 12:34 pm.

        I guarantee people have been driving on it in recent years as well. This year was odd due to early heavy snows which insulated the lake so good, thick ice couldn’t form. It happens.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/25/2020 - 11:04 am.

      Joe, not to pile on, but this looks like: Don’t tell me about the coronavirus until I am infected and dying then I’ll believe.

  2. Submitted by Tom Noble on 01/20/2020 - 06:22 pm.

    It’s called weather, we have always had it. Still waiting for that ice age they predicted in the 70’s. Climate alarmists are never right

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/21/2020 - 12:19 am.

      Weather and climate change are two different things. Snow in your back yard doesn’t negate the evidence that world temperature and Co2 levels have increased.
      By the way “they” was a few articles in national magazines back in the 70’s. “They” was also not backed by the empirical data that modern climate science is. .

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/21/2020 - 05:23 pm.

        You’re going to give yourself carpal tunnel if you keep on debunking the old “predictions of another ice age” business. You’re never going to convince its proponents of the truth.

        Instead of arguing with them, I recommend trying something with a greater likelihood of success. How about taking a trip to the shore and ordering the tide to stop?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/21/2020 - 04:32 pm.

      No, its called climate. And the scientists have been proven right again and again.

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 01/22/2020 - 05:59 pm.

      A question
      Has anybody actually read the stories from the 70s? Mr Noble, have you?
      I have.
      It does not say what you think it says.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/24/2020 - 08:05 am.

        Of course he hasn’t. No American conservative has ever read (or seen) a word of any of these much ballyhooed 70s articles.

        This was a (very early) talking point distributed by Conservative Central HQ for use as ammunition in “debates” with those in the reality-based community. Unfortunately for them, it was always a dud.

  3. Submitted by Ben Kjellberg on 01/21/2020 - 06:30 am.

    I agree that the climate is changing and human activity has accelerated the change. That said. When has the weather ever been predictable? Have we had a no ice year? Where can readers find more scientific research/data information on this topic?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2020 - 09:00 am.

      You don’t need a “no ice” year to have the impacts mentioned in the piece. Go ask the resort owners on URL, or the guide services on Winnie how THIS season has been. Out of the last 5 years, we’ve had what I would term a decent ice season for maybe 3. If that balance shifts to even 3 of 5, you’re gonna see a LOT of places reliant on the ice go out of business.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/21/2020 - 08:29 am.

    Why are conservatives never conservationists?

    If I had to give my definition of what a conservative (could/should) exemplifies I would say:

    “a determination to always expend precious resources wisely and cautiously”

    A liberal? Well, the opposite of that, I guess.

    And certainly when it came to tax policies that used to be true until the last few years. And if we go back to the time of Teddy Roosevelt it was true to most resources.

    In today’s Trumpian world everything is upside down: liberals are the environmentalists and conservatives are the drill baby drill, get it now, worry later crowd.

    On climate change, liberals are the voice of caution, conservatives say “let’s roll the dice and see what happens”.

    Maybe it is time to just switch the labels for the sake of consistency.

    Which, of course. leads us to the rallying cry of election 2020:

    “Bernie Sanders, the choice of conservatives everywhere”

  5. Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 01/21/2020 - 09:58 am.

    Global Warming, Climate Change (or, in the UK, “Climate Catastrophe”) is now very well established for those with their heads out of the sand. Insurance companies and financial institutions are building it into their risk models and business plans.

    The physics (the nature of radiant heat, the Planck curves for different source temperatures) and chemistry (infrared absorption spectra of CO2 and methane) were worked out in approx 1900-1920, and thousands of scientists since have worked out more and more detail. The “scientific community” is highly competitive, and–if someone could find a science-based flaw in the current picture, a hypothesis that other scientists could test, and then it turned out that climate change WAS a big false alarm–there would be fame, fortune, and Nobel Prizes all around. Any scientist would give an arm and a leg to falsify the current Climate Change scenario. It hasn’t happened, and I strongly doubt that it ever will.

    There are engineering efforts (CO2 capture and sequestration, aerosols in the high atmosphere to reflect a fraction of our sunlight back out into space, etc.) and some of those may have promise, BUT they will be difficult to do well and cheaply AND keeping global temperatures low enough to ensure our survival may well require a combination of approaches (carbon capture, geoengineering earth’s reflectivity, and moving away from burning stuff for energy).

    • Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 01/22/2020 - 05:49 pm.

      Well said.
      I’d just like to do a shout out to John Tyndall who was the first to correctly measure the relative infrared absorptive powers of co2 in 1860.
      As the kids say today……..physics gonna physic

  6. Submitted by Mary Finelli on 01/21/2020 - 11:45 am.

    They should find a nonviolent way to spend their time instead of torturing/killing sentient beings, as science has shown fishes to be: http://www.FishFeel.org/fish-sentience/ Fishing isn’t sport, the fish are victims not willing participants. All of the nutrients derived from fish, and from other animals, can be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally responsibly from plant sources.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/21/2020 - 04:36 pm.

      Should my dog stop eating meat too? Should the coyotes that eat the rabbits and squirrels in my neighborhood switch to a plant-based diet?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/21/2020 - 05:24 pm.

      We are also learning more about the likelihood of at least some plant species having sensation, and even a form of social structure.

      All eating involves killing something.

  7. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 01/22/2020 - 09:30 pm.

    For those who want the full picture of what NASA says (without the cherry picking) go to this:

    http://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

  8. Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/23/2020 - 08:42 am.

    Well, I would be very curious to see what a poll of average ice fishermen and snow-mobilers on MN lakes would reveal as to their attitude toward climate change. Are they more likely to be climate denialists? We certainly know that out-state Minnesotans consistently vote for climate denialist “conservatives” to represent them, both in DC and St Paul.

    Minnesota’s winter wonderland is already doomed, and the various winter “festivals” now have to worry that there won’t be cold adequate to their festivities virtually every year. From snow-mobilers going through the weakened ice every week to monster pickups being afraid to risk it, these are Minnesotans’ wages of denial–albeit rather small ones in the grand scheme of the global climate catastrophe that is now looming.

    The American conservative movement opted to turn climate science into a partisan matter in the early 90s, and now every fool with a computer thinks he knows more than the scientists at NASA. While it was “conservatives” who sowed the climate whirlwind, unfortunately we all must reap it, especially the millions of innocent species whose ecosystems are now collapsing around them.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/24/2020 - 10:30 pm.

      Well I can’t tell you about mindset, but I can tell you ice fisherman are quite well versed in early adoption of new technology, at least, for now, in the realm of portability and ease of use. I expect gas augers for example, will be pretty much gone within 5 years. Not a huge greenhouse gas issue, but readily adopted by this group. Get a viable, even marginally affordable electrical storage solution and you’ll get the generators and propane gone too, even fewer things to pack and lug on the ice. I was rather surprised to see solar panels on a lot of resort shacks up on LOW, they don’t power much, but saves on charging 12 v batteries continually, off the grid. Get them efficient and affordable enough to keep a wheelhouse going during the day, you’ll see them everywhere. As I said, I don’t know that ANY of this is done with climate change in mind, but it can provide something of a blueprint as to how changes that CAN, even as a side effect, affect a positive result with regards to climate, might be marketed to a skeptical market.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 01/25/2020 - 08:49 am.

        This is very interesting, thanks. I gave up ice fishing years ago.

        It is heartening to hear that MN icefishers are open to energy saving tech–unlike Trump, who brags that he “restored” the use of incandescent light bulbs to gub’mint, solely as an “Eat this, Libs!” maneuver, to the cheers of the anti-environment Repub base.

        That’s the mentality of today’s “conservative” movement….

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/26/2020 - 02:05 am.

          I would say it’s a combination of form following function and acceptance following utility. As battery tech has improved, the utility of electric motors for the most basic task of ice fishing, getting through the ice, has been made evident. They’re faster, lighter, and less of a hassle to deal with. Regardless of ideology, those who have an interest in getting through the ice as easily as possible have happily jumped aboard. I wouldn’t call it market forces, as electrics are still considerably more expensive, even more so as the price for used gas models plummets, but rather a very good job of selling the benefits, both by the manufacturers and fellow ice anglers. Something similar occurs with the EV automobile market, but there, it seems to run into stronger headwinds and far more entrenched skepticism. I guess I would say the lesson might be that instead of promoting climate saving ideas as being “right and good” from the outset, maybe more thought should be devoted as to how they might be “sold” as being useful improvements first, in order to lessen some of the ideological resistance.

  9. Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/21/2020 - 01:01 pm.

    As for sentience, I and you, are an animal like any other. Pretending that we have some sort of moral obligation to other animals on some emotional level smacks of anthropomorphism, and actual diminishes our connection to the natural world by suggesting that we stand apart from it, and other creatures as being above our evolutionary role. By no means should we recklessly exploit the natural world, but neither should we see ourselves as some sort of special exemption, meant only to interact in some carefully proscribed role as caretaker of all that surrounds us, rather than actually live as a part of nature, THAT is the domain of intelligent designers, and their religious fervor.

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