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Climate change is expected to decrease ice coverage and thickness globally while increasing the variability of ice coverage and thickness on midlatitude lakes. Ice thickness affects physical, biological, and chemical processes as well as safety conditions for scientists and the general public. Measurements of ice thickness that are both temporally frequent and spatially extensive remain a technical challenge. Here new observational methods using repurposed soil moisture sensors that facilitate high spatial–temporal sampling of ice thickness are field tested on Lake Mendota in Wisconsin during the winter 2015/16 season. Spatial variability in ice thickness was high, with differences of 10 cm of ice column thickness over 1.05 km of horizontal distance. When observational data were compared with manual measurements and model output from both the Freshwater Lake (FLake) model and General Lake Model (GLM), ice thickness from sensors matches manual measurements, whereas GLM and FLake results showed a thinner and thicker ice layer, respectively. The FLake-modeled ice column temperature effectively remained at 0°C, not matching observations. We also show that daily ice dynamics follows the expected linear function of ice thickness growth/melt, improving confidence in sensor accuracy under field conditions. We have demonstrated a new method that allows low-cost and high-frequency measurements of ice thickness, which will be needed both to advance winter limnology and to improve on-ice safety.
Ice cover plays a critical role in physical, biogeochemical, and ecological processes in lakes. Despite its importance, winter limnology remains relatively understudied. Here, we provide a primer on the predominant drivers of freshwater lake ice cover and the current methodologies used to study lake ice, including in situ and remote sensing observations, physical based models, and experiments. We highlight opportunities for future research by integrating these four disciplines to address key knowledge gaps in our understanding of lake ice dynamics in changing winters. Advances in technology, data integration, and interdisciplinary collaboration will allow the field to move toward developing global forecasts of lake ice cover for small to large lakes across broad spatial and temporal scales, quantifying ice quality and ice thickness, moving from binary to continuous ice records, and determining how winter ice conditions and quality impact ecosystem processes in lakes over winter. Ultimately, integrating disciplines will improve our ability to understand the impacts of changing winters on lake ice.