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Lake Sakakawea’s open water surpasses record for latest freeze

Latest open water on record

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Open water on Lake Sakakawea at this time of year has never happened before. The previous latest freeze date for the reservoir was Jan. 18, 2012. This photograph, looking north from the east end of Garrison Dam, was taken Jan. 13.

Open water on Lake Sakakawea in the second half of January? No way!

Yes. It’s true.

The latest Lake Sakakawea had ever been declared “frozen” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was at 10:10 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2012. Yesterday, Jan. 18, the reservoir had open water from Fort Stevenson State Park on the north side of the reservoir all the way to the face of the dam, a distance of nearly 10 miles to the south.

At Fort Stevenson this past Saturday, even with the use of binoculars, no ice could be seen looking far to the west. It is nothing short of stunning, remarkable for a body of water that often freezes solid by late-December and has an earliest recorded freeze date of Nov. 30, 1985.

Garrison Bay, where thousands of boats are launched every summer, is almost completely ice free. What little ice there was opened up in warm temperatures and high winds this past week. The bay is usually home to several ice fishing houses at this time of year, but this is anything but a normal winter. The situation is similar at other bays on the lake which are normally among the first portions of the reservoir to freeze over.

Some locals speculate, with all sincerity, that Lake Sakakawea could do the previously unthinkable and not freeze over at all this winter. Whether or not that occurs remains to be seen, but even if the sprawling reservoir is eventually declared frozen by the Corps it is all but a certainty that the record for least days frozen will be snapped. Only a very late and very cold spring could interfere with that possibility.

The earliest “ice free” date on record for Sakakawea is March 27, 2012, just 69 days later than it was declared frozen on Jan. 18, 2012. Even if Sakakawea should freeze over this winter, as history says it should, the thickness of the ice pack will likely be far less than what is normally experienced for the reservoir. Less ice could translate into an early melt.

Days are already beginning to get longer, a little bit at a time. Increased sunshine can deteriorate ice. In January the amount of daylight increases one hour and two minutes. February adds another hour and 28 minutes of daylight.

Normal daytime highs for the remainder of January are in the low 20’s with overnight lows in the single digits. Our forecast for the remainder of this week is very similar. The outlook for the remainder of the month slightly favors below normal temps. Nevertheless, there are no lows in the forecast anywhere close to approaching record lows of minus 33 to minus 46 for the remainder of January.

Looking even further ahead, the average high temperature in March is more than 37 degrees, ranging from an average high of 30 degrees on March 1 to 46 degrees March 31 with overnight lows from the teens to mid-20s. Combined with increased daylight those conditions are hardly conducive to making ice.

Last year Sakakawea was declared frozen on Jan. 11. It is already assured of having the latest freeze-over date in it’s history and 2021 could see the earliest ice free designation as well.

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