If you were told there could be volcanoes along the shore of Lake Erie in winter, would you believe it? While it may be hard to imagine, Lake Erie does in fact produce volcanoes and Evangola State Park can be one of the best places to see them!
Unlike traditional volcanoes, the ones found at Evangola State Park are not made of rock and magma, but rather water and ice. Ice volcanoes are a temporary outcome of a partially frozen lake. When ice begins to form on the water’s surface, powerful winds push large waves towards the shore. As they do, the water is sandwiched between the shore and the ice, creating a buildup of pressure.
Eventually with nowhere else to go, this pressure causes the water to burst through cracks in the ice. The resulting spray from this burst, freezes on the ice surface, accumulating in the shape of a cone with an open, unfrozen center. With each successive wave, plumes of water erupt from the newly formed ice volcano, building this winter wonder to potential heights of 20-plus feet! Occasionally the ice may build up in the shape of a cone, but without an open center. These rolling hills of ice become so called ice-dunes.
While Lake Erie is one of the best locations to see ice volcanoes, Lakes Ontario, Michigan, and Superior can also produce these icy cones when conditions are right. For example, such volcanoes have also recently formed during the cold snap at Hamlin Beach State Park in Monroe County and Fair Haven Beach State Park in Cayuga County.
Further from home but to the excitement of many, in 2021 a 45-foot tall ice volcano formed in southeastern Kazakhstan as water from a hot spring gushed through a thick layer of ice, creating a massive volcano for all to enjoy.
But also, to be clear, the shelf ice on a lake where these structures form can be extremely unsafe and people are strongly advised against venturing out on it to get closer to ice volcanoes.
Confine sightseeing to the shoreline or stick with a guided tour by a trained Parks naturalist. One such hike is scheduled for Feb. 8 at Evangola State Park. Check with the park to learn if the volcanoes have formed.
As a recent warning from the police department in Halton, Ontario, describes, if someone falls through shelf ice or down the opening of an ice volcano into the lake water below, it can be nearly impossible to get out even if aid is nearby. Cold lake water can quickly induce hypothermia, which can lead to death.
This graphic below illustrates the danger:
Leaving earthly risk behind for a moment, scientists have even been able to detect ice volcanoes from several planets and moons deep in space. Typically called cryovolcanoes, these are defined as volcanoes that erupt with ice, water, or other materials such as methane and ammonia. In 2010, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found possible ice volcanoes on Saturn’s moon Titan and in 2016 images from the Dawn space probe revealed dozens of ancient ice volcanoes on the dwarf planet Ceres
Back on earth, favorable conditions for ice volcano formation here in New York haven’t been consistent in recent years. Warmer winters have resulted in less ice on all the Great Lakes. In 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that only 2.4 percent of the Great Lakes surface was covered by ice in late January, the smallest amount in nearly 50 years. It was also noted that it was ninth-warmest January on record. While strong waves are needed to form ice volcanoes, strong waves with warmer temperatures will result in their destruction or prevent them from forming at all.
Despite our changing climate, ice volcanoes can still be a common occurrence during the winter months. The biggest change is in their longevity. For example, in the past several years, ice volcanoes at Evangola State Park have only lasted a few weeks or even just a few days after forming, as sudden warm spells take hold and break them apart.
For your best chance to experience ice volcanoes, be sure to keep a close watch on your local weather forecast and head towards the lake shore after a push of cold artic air passes through. To add to the adventure of enjoying these frozen phenomena, our team of environmental educators offer guided hikes all winter long, sharing what makes our Great Lakes environment so unique.
For those interested in learning more, look for guided hikes through the Niagara Region Parks Interpretive Programs Office.
Cover shot – Ice Volcanoes in 2021 at Evangola State Park. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.
Post by Matt Nusstein, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region NYS Parks
Learn about ice volcanoes on the the Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior.
Learn about the presence of Cryovolcanism in the Solar System in this report from the BBC.
Learn about other Great Lakes wonders to look for at NYS Parks in previous Parks Blog posts.
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2 thoughts on “Volcanoes On A Great Lake”
In the late 1970’s I lived on the shore of Lake Erie just outside of Dunkirk, New York while attending SUNY Fredondia.
One day I saw the ice volcanoes and decided to explore. They were everywhere and very big and beautiful and I was young and used to walking out on the ice of small lakes when going ice fishing with my dad and uncles so I decided to explore. I was alone.
One volcano was really impressive so I climbed to the top and looked around. With no warning whatsoever the top of the volcano collapsed and I went down with it. By the grace of God, I instinctively threw out my arms and was able to stop my fall. I looked down and saw the water and the ice thrashing around below me and realized the deadly situation I was in. The panic and fear I felt haunts me still, now 55 years in the past.
There were no warning signs at the time. I hope there are now. Everyone in the area should be aware of the danger, especially dumb kids like I was.
Thanks for sharing your harrowing personal experience, John, to underscore the extreme danger that these formations represent. Glad that you are here to tell the tale.