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Upper Peninsula dog sled and ski races in peril from higher temps, no snow

ski jump
The Ishpeming Ski Club has been making snow in preparation for an annual ski jumping competition, but the warm temperatures haven’t been any help. While the club is optimistic about the competition, it may have to reschedule due to the weather conditions. (Courtesy Ishpeming Ski Club)
  • Dog races and other snow-dependent events are being canceled or threatened in the Upper Peninsula due to warmer temperatures 
  • Less than one percent of the Great Lakes are covered in ice, far below historical levels for this time of year  
  • Climate change and El Niño are being cited for the milder weather

Michigan’s warm early winter is not only wreaking havoc on ski resorts across the lower part of the state — it’s endangering traditional outdoor snow events in the normally frigid Upper Peninsula. 

On Tuesday, The Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race set for this weekend in Newberry was canceled for lack of snow.  Ditto for the SISU Ski Fest race in Ironwood, where trails are reportedly soggy.


And warmer weather has left organizers of the Ishpeming Ski Club — which has been putting on a ski jumping competition since Grover Cleveland was president — nervous about this year’s event at the Nordic Ski Complex Jan. 19.  

“We've made snow a few times, but unfortunately because of … the warm weather, the warm rain, we've lost a lot of snow that we've made,” said Peter Copenhaver, vice president of the Ishpeming Ski Club


A minimum of 6 inches of compressed snow, or 15 inches of snow before it’s compressed, is needed for the competition. The ski club has resorted to manufacturing its own snow because of the lack of snowfall in the area. 

Since Dec 1, there has been a little over 8 inches of snow in the Ironwood area, nearly 33 inches below normal for the time of year. 

“The encouraging thing is, we have been doing this tournament for 137 years since 1887 and we have never missed a tournament,” Copenhaver said. “So we are very hopeful that we're still going to be able to have this tournament at some point this season.” 

Climate experts have been noting for years how rising temperatures are already impacting Michigan winters. Among the most notable effects are reductions in ice cover on the Great Lakes. 

The max ice cover over each of the lakes has fluctuated, but mostly decreased over the years, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. 

Currently, less than one percent (.04) of the Great Lakes are covered by ice. At this time last year, 4.4 percent of ice covered the lakes. 

Typically, the lakes don’t reach maximum ice coverage until late February or March, but even those dates are no longer a sure bet for winter competitions in northern Michigan. Last year, the UP 200 dog sled race was canceled due to rain and lack of snow. 

A host of factors can explain the lakes not freezing as fast as they did in previous years, including El Niño

“If it's (air) coming from way up north, then it's going to be really cold and the lakes are more likely to freeze, but if it's coming from Southern California, depending on how that jetstream is positioned, that air is going to be way warmer and we're going to get less ice cover,” said James Kessler, physical scientist for the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. 

During an El Niño year, warmer waters cause the Pacific jet stream to move south of its normal position, resulting in dryer and warmer conditions in the northern U.S. and Canada. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an El Niño year was coming in June and a recent report states that the climate phenomenon will continue into the spring. 

“You really just need persistent, cold air,” Kessler said. “If it went below zero (degrees) fahrenheit tomorrow and it only stayed like that for a day or two and then it got warm again, there's not going to be a whole lot of thick ice.” 

So far, the average temperature in northern Michigan this winter has been 34 degrees fahrenheit, which is nearly 10 degrees above normal. Similarly in west Michigan where the average temperature so far has been 39 degrees fahrenheit, 9.2 degrees above normal. In southeast Michigan, the average temperature this winter is 40.1 degrees, 8.8 degrees above normal. 

“Near shore area, which is pretty shallow, it freezes in a few days because it's shallow and pretty sensitive to cooling,” said Ayumi Fujisaki-Manome, associate research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research. “But in deep water, like in the middle of southern Lake Michigan or in the middle of (Lake) Superior, it takes longer.” 


Warmer winters also bring the peril of thinner ice. 

The state Department of Natural Resources warns that there isn't a specific level of ice thickness that determines safety. It suggests residents check the ice for several signs before walking, fishing or skiing on it. 

The strongest ice is clear with bluish tint; while weak ice, formed by melted and refrozen snow, looks milky.

Michiganders should steer clear of ice with slush on top because it is half as strong as clear ice. Slush indicates the ice below it isn’t completely frozen.

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