What's Really Happening With The "Ice Tsunami" Forcing Lake Erie Residents To Evacuate?

Sustained winds of more than 113 kilometers (70 miles) per hour have forced massive onshore pileups of ice along the coast of Lake Erie. Town of Hamburg Emergency Services

Madison Dapcevich 25 Feb 2019, 22:09

Strong winds have forced a massive wall of ice worthy of a Game of Thrones shout-out against coastal buildings, prompting emergency services to issue a voluntary evacuation in a small New York town.

A now-viral dramatic video of the "ice tsunami" shared by the Niagara Parks Police perked the ears of weather enthusiasts around the globe as it captures the rapid movement of ice chunks making landfall and piling into the roadway. More commonly known as ice shoves, these blockades occur when strong winds rapidly push free-floating ice toward shore, resulting in dangerous pile-ups once they make landfall. This was the case over the weekend along Lake Erie in upstate New York, where residents saw sustained hurricane-strength winds of more than 113 kilometers (70 miles) per hour.

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“Basically, this is the same process as a storm surge, but you’re dealing with sub-freezing temperatures,” Andrew Futrell, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Administrator at North Carolina State University, told IFLScience. “Instead of ruining a house by flood damage, [the ice] can bulldoze over structures.”

Nearly 100 million people were under wind advisories as the Great Lakes and Northeastern US continues to be blasted by a damaging windstorm. Last week, the same weather system dumped snow on the normally arid areas of Arizona, Los Angeles, and Joshua Tree National Park.

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Ice shoves are most common in the spring when frozen lakes begin to thaw. During a breakup, ice will typically free float over lakes or oceans “like a train with steel wheels on a steel rail”, encountering very little friction. It's when ice coincides with an obstruction like land that it can build up quickly. 

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“Water has a high surface tension and is wind-driven on open water. The longer and wider the wind fetch, the greater the storm surge. Also, the more time a constant wind is blowing, the larger the surge buildup,” explained Futrell, who also studied as a meteorologist. “Persistent wind over several hours being blown towards shore puts the ice in motion. This momentum carries it onto land and then keeps forcing it inland until enough friction can counteract the wind forcing it. The friction of the ground causes [the ice] to pile upwards as it slows down.”

If ice is pushed up against homes or businesses, Futrell advises residents to clear it away to avoid water that might seep through walls, windows, or cracks.

Emergency services have asked the general public to avoid visiting the beach and have enacted a voluntary evacuation. Town of Hamburg Emergency Services
Emergency services say they are going door-to-door to account for residents. Town of Hamburg Emergency Services
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