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Why Does ‘Pancake Ice’ Form On Lake Michigan? Experts Say Some Weather Magic Is Needed To Form The Mini Icebergs

The waterlily-like ice formations require a specific balance of elements to come about, and its existence is fleeting amid the strong waves of Lake Michigan.

Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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LAKEFRONT — Pancakes made of ice have formed along Chicago’s lakefront, delighting weather nerds and photo enthusiaststs.

The not-so-common ice formation — which resembles frozen pancakes jostling on the water — has been spotted in various parts of the lakefront.

Andrea Vander Woude, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said these frosty plates are one of her favorite types of ice, and they require particular elements to come about.

“Pancake ice is really interesting because it needs a specific temperature to form it. It usually forms just right below freezing, and in areas that have a little bit of wave action,” Vander Woude said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.

Vander Woude said there are two ways these waterlily-like formations come to be.

“It’ll form on water that’s covered with a little bit of slush, and then it slowly forms those pancakes circles that you see,” Vander Woude said. “Or it can be from … breaking of the ice, and high wave action and wind conditions.”

Photographer Craig Shimala saw the disks Jan. 3 at North Avenue Beach. He’s since spent many hours documenting them from above, from land and from a kayak.

“What’s not to love about pancake ice, hahah! It’s one of those weather phenomenons that’s fun to say, see and capture with our cameras,” Shimala said in a Twitter message.

Shimala shared a video Sunday morning of the formation at North Avenue Beach. But just an hour and a half later, the ice had moved drastically, he said.

Pancake ice formations are fleeting, and they are known to move quickly.

“With pancake ice, they’re tiny little floating icebergs, so they’re not going to stay in place very well,” Vander Woude said. “The hydrography and the circulation of Lake contributes to how long they last as well as the temperature and the wind.

“Within a day it can be completely different, which is the coolest part about ice – that it changes so rapidly.”

Check out Block Club photographer Colin Boyle’s photos:

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of 63rd Street Beach in Woodlawn on Jan. 17, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of 63rd Street Beach in Woodlawn on Jan. 17, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Pancake ice forms on Lake Michigan off the shores of Rainbow Beach in South Shore on Jan. 18, 2022.

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