Would you like some syrup with your pancake ice? Unlike regular pancakes made with flour and buttermilk, pancake ice is formed when surface slush thickens and swirls caused by a current or light wind, a process known as rafting. The circular pads of ice form anywhere from 1-10 feet in diameter, and up to 4 inches thick (that’s a big pancake). A signature feature of Lake Superior’s pancake ice is its raised edges on the perimeter which is caused by continued crashes into one another from the waves.
The process begins in calm waters when frazil crystals float to the surface. They accumulate and bond together forming a thin sheet of ice that appears similar to an oil slick. The “grease” then swirls in the water and forms the familiar pancake-shaped ice. When the weather gets extremely cold, pancake ice forms quickly and can be gone just as fast, as the pancakes will freeze together creating a sheet of ice.
Lake Superior’s Pancake ice typically forms when the temperature is between 20 and 32 degrees, as it is cold enough to form ice, but not cold enough to create a sheet of ice on the lake. The best places to see pancake ice formations are in North Shore bays (e.g. Agate Beach, Burlington Bay, Flood Bay, Beaver Bay, Good Harbor Bay, etc).