Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) will hold its Lily's Classic hockey tournament and fundraiser as normal on Feb. 17 behind the SAE house on Lake Mendota’s ice despite recent warm winter temperatures, according to a member of the fraternity.
This decision could change based on weather conditions within the next two weeks, according to philanthropy chair Sean Kramer.
“Right now, everything is going to happen as planned,” Kramer said. “[SAE] will take all the necessary precautions prior to the event, and if we feel like the ice isn’t safe to have the event, we will call it off.”
SAE did not immediately share how it is monitoring ice safety or if it has an alternative plan in place.
Lily’s Classic consists of a 4-versus-4 “boot hockey” tournament to benefit Lily’s Fund, which supports research on epilepsy at UW-Madison. This year, Kramer said the fraternity plans to “put a bigger emphasis on the hockey tournament and try to raise as much money for the Lily’s Fund as they can.”
Hundreds of attendees typically gather on a frozen Lake Mendota during Lily’s Classic. However, climatology experts and local authorities say ice on Lake Mendota and other local lakes is not thick enough to safely support winter events following a recent string of above-average temperatures.
“It is highly unlikely that it would be safe to run [Lily’s Classic] this winter,” said Michael Notaro, climate change expert for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
With temperatures expected to remain above average for the next several weeks, other events on the ice have been canceled or postponed.
The Clean Lakes Alliance canceled all on-ice events at its Frozen Assets festival last weekend. It’s the first cancellation in the festival’s 14-year history, according to Adam Sodersten, Clean Lakes Alliance marketing & communications director.
“I think what it teaches us as event organizers is that we really have to have a plan B from the get-go, which is unfortunate when you are planning large events because you essentially have to plan two events,” Sodersten said.
The UW Winter Carnival also moved or canceled all events on Lake Mendota’s ice — including moving its signature Lady Liberty inflatable statue off the ice to Library Mall — citing “thinning of ice and several weak and open spots.”
UW-Madison Student Affairs and university police made similar statements Wednesday. In a Twitter post, the police department asked people to stay off the ice and warned “it is not safe.”
Ice on Lake Mendota is thinner than past years
According to the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, Lake Mendota officially froze over on Jan. 15 as a cold front moved through Wisconsin and brought below-zero temperatures. The Jan. 15 freeze is the third-latest freeze date since monitoring began over 170 years ago.
“Since the winter of 1997-98, ice cover duration has only averaged 82 days, which marks a dramatic shift towards a warmer, less icy state for the Madison-area lakes,” Notaro said.
On Jan. 25, user-reported data from the Lake Link Fishing Report measured 13 inches of ice on the lake. By Feb. 1, however, only seven inches of ice remained. As of Wednesday, the ice outside the union is approximately six inches, according to the Wisconsin Union.
“We normally look for close to eight inches,” Sodersten said. “When you have 700 people in a tight area on the lake, then they start behaving like a vehicle because they are distributing their weights in a very small area.”
Recent warm temperatures could also impact the strength of the ice, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. Between Jan. 22 to Feb. 5, the maximum temperature in Madison has been above freezing every day, according to data from the Dane County Truax Field Station. During approximately half of those days, the temperature did not drop below freezing.
Even when ice has an adequate thickness, the strength is lost if the air temperature stays above freezing for 24 hours or more. The Clean Lakes Alliance measured ice thickness at approximately 6.5 to 7 inches leading up to their event and said warm temperatures seemed to influence the quality of ice.
“The quality of the ice was really poor. It was slushy on top, and it was really flaky. It wasn’t good, strong, clear ice,” Sodersten said. “There’s just zero reason to take a risk on it.”
Sodersten said he was confident the Lily’s Classic organizers would “make the right decision.”
“They’re going to have a hard time even getting on the ice because we have noticed the ice is pulling away from the shore,” Sodersten added.
Feng He, senior scientist for the Center for Climatic Research, agreed with Notaro and Sodersten that Lake Mendota may not be safe by the time Lily’s Classic rolls around.
“I anticipate that the ice on Lake Mendota will be quite thin, but Lake Mendota probably won’t be completely ice-free, as the typical thaw date for Lake Mendota usually occurs in March,” he said.
Notaro also said this year’s mild winter and diminishing ice cover could become even more common with climate change.
“In terms of climate change, Wisconsin has experienced a large rise in air temperature, especially during the winter,” Notaro said. “Annual precipitation has increased. Heavy rainfall events have become more common. Lakes are warming and losing ice cover.”
Riley O’Flanagan contributed research to this story.
Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor and former copy chief for the Daily Cardinal. She is a statistics major and has reported on a wide range of campus issues. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.