Ice Recreation – Area Waters Unsafe for Play

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From the Office of Coles Supervisor Martin Nohe

Although an attractive place to play, frozen ponds, lakes, rivers and streams present unusual risks to everyone, including the rescuers challenged with attempting to rescue them.

The climatology in this area of the country rarely produces ice of the quality and thickness necessary for safe outdoor recreation. And there are also other unseen factors that make recreation on local ice more risky than in northern climates: Ice that is formed during a continuous, hard freeze, typical of northern climates, is much stronger than ice formed during temperatures that fluctuate above and below the freezing mark repeatedly; Ice that forms where water levels change frequently, or where the water is moving, such as storm water ponds, rivers, and streams is especially dangerous because its thickness will vary with the conditions and may contain cracks. Areas inhabited by waterfowl such as ducks or geese can contain patches of very thin ice where the birds’ swimming and feeding activities have kept the water “open” longer than the surrounding surfaces.

The primary challenge for rescuers is one of time. Moderate to severe hypothermia can occur in less than 10 minutes by immersion in icy water. The window of opportunity for a successful rescue closes rapidly beyond that time.

The conditions that create the highest risk for children are when they are unsupervised, combined with periods of warm weather that draws them outside to play. Ice can deteriorate 4 times faster than it forms and its suitability for recreational purposes is often overestimated. Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue Swift Water Rescue in conjunction with rescue agencies across the National Capitol Region recommend that ice recreation is best sought on skating rinks, pavilions, or other locations specifically designed for that purpose, and not the dangerous, naturally occurring ice that forms on area waters.

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