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Friday, January 24, 2014

Use Caution & Common Sense Before Lacing Up Your Skates Outside

The recent cold stretch has prompted many of my neighbors and friends to lace up their ice skates and hit the ice at Samp Mortar Lake. The average temperature this month (28.3 degrees) is nearly two degrees below normal, and the last two mornings have featured low temperatures of two and five degrees, respectively. In fact, six days this month have had double-digit below-normal average temperatures.

I can recall many years spending hours at a time skating on our nearby lake in early January. In fact, the biggest obstacle more often than not was clearing the snow from the ice before skating. The normal high and low temperatures for this time of the year are 37 and 23 degrees, respectively, but there were many years when the mercury didn't come close to normal.

First responders across Connecticut responded to multiple incidents of people falling through the ice yesterday. The Greenwich Fire Department rescued two boys who fell into a private pond. The teenaged boys have been released from the hospital and are expected to be okay.

During the rescue, crews put on special suits to protect themselves from the cold water temperatures that can cause hypothermia. Authorities urge anyone who falls through ice to stay calm and make as much noise as possible to get help quickly.

So, what precautions should be taken before venturing out on the ice? According to safesport. com, "If possible, choose a frozen-over shallow body of water. If you do happen to fall in, the depth will be low enough for you to safely walk out. The strength of the ice cannot be determined just by looking at it. Its strength is determined by many factors."

These factors include:

  • water chemistry, or whether it is salt or fresh water;
  • the daily climate, including wind, snow, rain, and temperature fluctuations; 
  • the presence of water currents at stream inflows and outflows;
  • the size and depth of the open water; 
  • distribution of weight on the ice; and signs of expansion cracks on the surface. 
Ice is generally considered safe for activities such as skating when it is at least four-to-five inches thick. Naturally, the thicker the ice, the better. To determine the ice thickness, chip or drill a hole through the ice and measure it. Keep in mind that one area of the lake, pond, or river may be thicker than another. 

Depending on the area you want to use, you may need to check the ice depth in more than one location. If the ice surface is covered with snow, the ice underneath all that light, fluffy whiteness has actually weakened, despite the freezing temperatures as snow acts as an insulator.

The best way to avoid falling through the ice is to do a thorough check of its strength. When possible, skate on designated areas. Nature is not perfect, though, and despite your best efforts to avoid weak spots, you still may happen upon them, causing you to fall into the frigid water. Bring along rope or a pole to assist in the rescue, just in case. Also, never go out onto frozen open water alone or at night.

Many years ago, the neighbors eagerly awaited an annual ritual which determined whether the ice was thick and safe enough for all of us to enjoy. One of my neighbors would drive his truck onto the ice as onlookers watched. Obviously, the driver took all the necessary precautions before his much-anticipated drive. Once his truck was safely on the ice, he'd give the "thumbs-up" sign to the cheers and delight of the onlookers.