COLUMN: Iowa ice -- when is it safe?

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     Here is my annual ice safety reminder. There is a saying that there is no such thing as “100 percent safe ice.” Iowa winters can be unpredictable with temperatures fluctuating widely and ice conditions varying depending on the location and body of water. If you enjoy activities that take you onto Iowa ice, you should follow a few simple safety tips to stay safe.

     Never “assume” the ice is safe, even if you have been told by others. Ice may vary greatly on any body of water, especially on rivers or ponds and lakes with aerators or springs. The best advice is to test the ice thickness and safety as you proceed onto the ice. The recommended thickness for a person walking, ice fishing, or skating on clear new ice is 4 inches minimum. Stay off of any ice less than four inches thick. Six plus inches is recommended for snowmobiles and ATV’s. If you must take a vehicle onto the ice you will need a thickness of 12-16 inches minimum. Always remember that other factors affect ice safety including currents below the ice, constant freezing and thawing action, objects near the surface, animals, aerators, wind and wave action, and springs to name a few. It is advisable to avoid river ice altogether as it changes constantly due to underwater currents, submerged objects, and water levels.

     If you enjoy ice activities it is essential to have an escape plan and carry safety equipment. Don’t forget to tell someone where you will be going and when you plan on returning. Think about and mentally prepare for a worst case scenario so you will know what to do if the worst were to happen. Some items that you should know how to use and carry with you include ice picks, rope, personal flotation device (PFD), pocketknife, compass, whistle, fire starter, and a cell phone. There are many comfortable choices now for cold weather PFDs and flotation bibs and jackets.

     As with other recreational activities, alcohol consumption should be avoided. Alcohol impairs your judgment, slows your responses to situations, and speeds up the development of hypothermia. In a life and death situation it could mean the difference between life and death.

     Do you know what to do if you fall through the ice? It is very important not to panic. Try to keep your head above the water as the shock of the waters temperature will cause you to inhale and exhale sharply for up to a minute or more. Turn back to the direction you came from. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface of ice. If you have ice picks use them now. Try to get your legs to the water’s surface behind you and kick while pulling yourself forward with your hands. Once you are out of the water, roll away from the hole until you are onto solid ice. If you can not kick and pull yourself out, keep your arms and hands on the ice as your body will quickly loose the ability to function. People have been saved long after falling through the ice because their clothing or beards froze to the ice, allowing rescuers time to get them out.

     If you come upon someone who has fallen through the ice, call or have someone else call 911. Keep calm and give the victim clear directions. Find an item such as a ladder, rope, tree branch, jumper cables, etc. to throw or extend to the victim to help them get out of the water. Do not put yourself in a position where you will become a second victim. If you are using a rope, tie a loop in the end you throw to the victim and have them put it over one arm and around their body. When they are on safe ground, help them keep warm until emergency personnel arrive.

     If you come upon an animal that has fallen through the ice do not go out onto the ice in an attempt to save it; call for help instead. Many pet owners have died trying to rescue pets. Keep pets away from the ice.

     Finally, educate children about ice safety. Icey ponds and rivers can seem like fun places to play, but will often have hidden dangers. Children easily underestimate the dangers of ice and cold water.

     Ice activities can be fun and enjoyable when done with safety in mind. Don’t become a statistic by putting yourself or anyone else in danger by venturing onto unsafe ice. 



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