Amid warmer winters, ice castles won’t happen in Lake George. How threatened is Saranac Lake’s Ice Palace tradition?
SARANAC LAKE — Lake George’s Ice Castles event is rebranding and moving forward without an actual castle this year after its first two years came with delays because of unseasonably warm weather.
Around the American north, some winter festival traditions are being threatened by inconsistent winter weather caused by climate change. Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival Ice Palace has remained consistent, but it hasn’t been without its lean years: 2016’s Palace needed a lot of help to make it through the 10-day Carnival, and this year’s had a drastically truncated building season, saved only through the dedication of the Ice Palace Workers 101 volunteers.
In recent years, several winter traditions around the country have rescheduled or been removed altogether as ice has become less reliable than it used to be.
In Lake George, an hour-and-a-half south of Saranac Lake, the Ice Castles company that has put on the Ice Castles event there for the past two years recently announced it is rebranding the event as Winter Realm for the coming year. The event will have an ice skating rink and ice sculpture exhibit instead of the full castle.
Ice Castles Vice President of Events Jared Henningsen recently told the Warren County Occupancy Tax Coordination Committee, “The weather hasn’t been kind to us in Lake George,” according to the Post-Star. They’ve lost money in the past two years, Henningsen said. Unseasonably warm 40-degree weather delayed the event’s opening from Jan. 27 to Feb. 6 this year.
Ice Castles spokesperson Melissa Smuzynski told the Enterprise the company is considering making the same change at its location in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to be less dependent on cold temperatures.
Ice castle events in Eagle River and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and North Woodstock and Hanover, New Hampshire, have struggled in recent years for various reasons.
But while some ice castles swelter in the heat, others thrive in cold temperatures.
The Ice Castles event in Midway, Utah, had its longest season in 12 years of operating this year. The Ice Castles event in New Brighton, Minnesota, got its earliest start in nine years of operating last season. The Quebec City Winter Carnival, which features Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, started a day late this year, not because the weather was warm, but because it was so cold.
Saranac Lake is a reliably chilly spot in the United States, garnering attention for putting up the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states on some winter days. But even here, IPW 101 Director Dean Baker, who leads the annual Ice Palace build, is worried about the future of the tradition.
“Going forward, it’s going to be iffy if the climate stays the way it is,” Baker said. “It seems like winter is coming much later in the year.”
His intuition is backed up by data.
Data held by the AuSable River Association, dating back to 1903, shows that on average, Mirror Lake in nearby Lake Placid ices over 17 days later in the season than it did a century ago. The total ice cover period is 24 days shorter than it was then.
The two shortest seasons for ice cover on Mirror Lake in the past century have occurred in the past two decades: 84 days in 2016 and 96 days in 2012. The average period for ice cover since 1903 is 140 days.
“This fits with the trend we’re seeing all around the world,” Paul Smith’s College natural science professor Curt Stager said. “Milder winters are allowing ice to form on lakes for shorter and shorter times during the winter.”
Ice is becoming thinner on average, too, he added. It varies from year to year, but the general direction is toward shorter, milder winters with less reliable ice as temperatures fluctuate and warmups melt safe ice.
“We’ve been lucky and we’ve been unlucky, too,” said Baker, the Ice Palace builder.
In 1974, Lake Flower didn’t have enough ice to make a palace work, and the IPW made a palace out of snow instead. But other than that, they’ve always had a palace.
There have been three or four years when they had to knock the thing down and start over again. One year they did that twice and had to build it three times, Baker said.
In 2016 — the year filmmaker Mark Burns filmed the movie “Ice Palace, A Love Letter” here — it was cold early in the year, but then it rained during construction, and the IPW had to cover the Palace in tarps to save the structure. This year, they had trouble getting thick enough ice after it rained in January, but they worked hard and got it done in a week.
Baker said things have changed a lot since he started working on the Ice Palace 40 years ago in 1983. Back then, they had three to five weeks to build and they rarely had a meltdown.
“Winter has changed,” Baker said. “Winter used to be pretty dependable up here.”
Baker, who is in his 70s, said when he was a kid growing up in southern New York, winters started in November. They rarely had a green Christmas, even down there.
“I couldn’t say it’s due to climate change, but that’d be a safe bet,” he added, clarifying that he’s an ice palace builder, not a scientist. “If you read climate change information, the Adirondacks is warming quicker than a lot of places.”
Stager said the science confirms the Adirondack Park is warming faster than the global average. Northern regions are warming faster, he said, because as large swaths of Arctic sea ice disappear, so does the heat reflection they provide.
Bright white sea ice reflects as much as 85% of solar radiation hitting its surface back into space, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while dark, navy blue sea water only reflects around 7%.
Ice castles around the U.S.
Eagle River, Wisconsin, has a similar tradition to Saranac Lake’s. Photos of volunteers “poleing” ice blocks out of the lake and sliding them into place to build the Ice Castle look right out of Saranac Lake’s history books. The first castle there was built in 1933. It was then called an ice palace. The effort is now headed up by the Eagle River Volunteer Fire Department.
The designers use Legos for blueprints, and the builders still use the original tools of the trade, including an old ice saw, much like Saranac Lake.
Since the start of the 1990s, they’ve missed a handful of years, but Chief Michael Anderson attributes this more to a change in practices than a change in winter.
When he became chief in 2016, he didn’t want to risk equipment and people on thin ice for the castle.
“I would argue that the weather’s not different for us. It’s the fact that we are taking less risk of putting equipment through the lake early on,” Anderson said.
If they get a warmup, slush forms under the snow and creates an unsafe pocket of water between the ice layers.
In the past five winters, the ERVFD has only built two castles, in 2022 and 2019 — missing builds in 2023, 2020 and 2021. But the castle also wasn’t built in 2014 and 2015 because of weather, before Anderson became chief.
Warm weather also shuttered Ice Castles in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, this year, after three days of operation in February. It was initially supposed to open in Jan. 22.
In early January, warm weather delayed Ice Castles in North Woodstock, New Hampshire.
Last year, the annual Occom Pond Party in the town of Hanover, New Hampshire, was canceled indefinitely after seven years of being cancelled or changed due to warm weather and rain melting their ice castles and making the pond unsafe. The event had been running for 25 years.
Future winters uncertain
Stager said the change in Earth’s climate is man-made.
“There are natural climate changes in the distant past to make this kind of thing happen, but what’s been happening in the last half-century is clearly increased from the burning of fossil fuels,” Stager said. “It’s warming more than it would otherwise, to the point that we are not likely to have reliably cold, snowy, icy winters like we’re used to.”
Burning fossil fuels released byproducts — greenhouse gasses — into the atmosphere. These gasses, like the gardening structures they’re named after, hold heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere. Usually this heat would leak back out into space.
This raises the overall temperature of the world and changes weather patterns. These man-made effects have long-term consequences.
“If we stop burning all of the fossil fuels now, it will stay warm for centuries,” Stager said. “But it’s worth doing because if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, it’s going to get even warmer for even longer. … We’re trying to prevent the worst possible outcome.”
Ice Castles founder Brent Christensen told ChavoBart Digital Media in 2021 that, long term, if he is planning on passing his business down to future generations, he is sure they’ll have to move further north.
Stager said most of the animal species in the Adirondacks will be able to migrate north to keep with the cold.
“But the human culture that we associate with our lives here as Adirondackers is threatened,” Stager said. Winter plays a large part in defining the culture in the Adirondacks, he added.
Last year, an international team of climate researchers released a study of all 21 former Winter Olympic cities, finding that only one may be reliable to host the international sports event again by the 2080s — Sapporo, Japan.
Researchers studied a mixture of factors that contribute to unfair and unsafe conditions, including low snow, rain, wet snow and temperature.
If humans keep burning fossil fuels at the rate they are currently, Lake Placid would be “reliable” to host again through the 2050s, but “marginal” by the 2080s. Other locations, like the site of the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, are already “unreliable” today.
“Reliable” means having all four of these factors in less than a quarter of days in February. “Marginal” means one or more of these factors occur between 25% and 49% of the time. “Unreliable” means one or more occur more than 50% of the time in February.
While there’s currently no way to reverse the course Earth’s climate is on, Stager said it is still best to find alternative energy sources sooner, rather than later.
“If we continue to burn the fossil fuels until we run out of them, which will happen sooner or later anyway, we’ll have to switch,” Stager said.
Scientists predict that humans will run out of burnable fossil fuels sometime before the end of the century.
“Why not stop before it’s too late?” Stager asked.
In Saranac Lake, members of the IPW 101 are doing what they’ve done for more than a century — praying for cold.
“There may be a time in the future when we can’t even build one. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Baker said.