Along the shores of Moosehead Lake, Roger Paradise starts the engine of the 1964 Cessna 180 small seaplane.
Paradise is the chief pilot for the Currier’s Flying Service, which has been melting ice on the 40-mile-long lake since at least the 1990s.
This story is part of the Maine Public” Climate Driven: Delving deeper into Maine’s response, one region at a timeseries.
“I doubt there’s any ice left,” Paradise said from the side of the plane. “Whatever has been damaged, we’ve had quite a bit of wind and rain.”
It’s early May, and Paradise says ice was officially announced about a week ago—on April 28, a little earlier than usual. To make a declaration, Paradise flew over Moosehead to see if there was enough open water for Katahdin’s steamer to cross the lake, from Greenville to the Northeast Carry.
“If the ship has to maneuver a lot, it doesn’t go out,” he explained. “There’s still too much ice out there. It has to be able to go up there, sail smoothly, all the way to the top.”
When Currier took over the job, it continued a nearly 200-year tradition, which began in 1848. According to Sue Currier, anticipation builds each spring as the lake ice melts. The contest is being held at a local business, and people are calling out to him with the same question: When does the ice run out?
“It’s still a big responsibility. I feel it! Big time,” said Paradise.
“He!” said Currier. “Because it is an important date that you record in history. So you want to be as accurate as possible.”
Currier and Paradise aren’t the only ice keepers in Maine. Records have been collected by generations of families, logging companies, general stores, and even dates engraved on barns. The tradition continues today, with volunteers still reporting the date each year.
“What’s really amazing to me is that it wasn’t collected for scientific reasons, as far as I know, ever,” said Glenn Hodgkins, a research hydrologist with the US Geological Survey based in Augusta.
More than two decades ago, Hodgkins began collecting historical data on melting ice and looking at its relationship to air temperature and climate. Using records from 29 lakes, Hodgkins found that over 150 years, ice melt occurred earlier with an average of nine days north and west of Maine, and an average of 16 days further south.
“But it proved, because Mainers tracked it and saved it over the years, it proved to be a valuable scientific record,” Hodgkins said.
Hodgkins said the trend could affect winter recreation, from snowmobiling to ice fishing. Dan Linda Bacon, lead lake assessment section in Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, said earlier ice melts also have a major effect on biology — specifically, phytoplankton, which can start growing and multiplying earlier after the ice melts.
“When you have a lake that has more nutrients in it than it should be in it, it gives a longer period of time for the algae population to take over completely,” Bacon said. “And you end up with a lake that’s really like green bean soup for a longer period of time during the summer.”
Bacon said large algal blooms had already begun in lakes along the south and coast: at Long Pond in Parsonsfield; and Georges Pond, in Hancock County, where residents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2020 treating water. Until about 20 years ago, Bacon said cooler temperatures helped reduce that risk. But he says shorter seasons of ice, and warmer water, will make it worse.
“It doesn’t take much to change a lake,” Bacon said. “We have a lot of lakes in the state of Maine right on the shore.”
For a large lake like Moosehead, Bacon says the concern is less urgent, as it takes longer to warm up with such a large volume of water.
But Tristan Taber, with the Lake Stewards of Maine, says Moosehead will not be immune from climate change. Taber says that if you extrapolate historical trends, they show that the average ice melt could potentially occur about two weeks earlier in 2070, compared to about two centuries earlier. Add that to the possible early fall frost dates, and Taber says the average ice season could potentially be cut by up to a month.
“There’s a real possibility that there might be risk here,” Taber said. “And that risk comes with thinking about the proliferation of cyanobacteria, with thinking about the availability of less environment, habitat for cold water fisheries, and then the risk of invasive species finding a foothold.”
Taber and other experts say that to help mitigate the change, local residents need to be guardians of their lakes and ponds. That means installing culverts near roads, adding vegetative supports along lake shores to help deal with storm water, and carefully considering the effects of development and erosion near bodies of water.
Meanwhile, scientists say they will continue to rely on ice melt data – and local ice melt observers in Maine – to continue a centuries-old tradition.
Robbie Feinberg reported on and wrote this story. Esta Pratt-Kielley produced the video.
This story was provided through a media partnership with Public.