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A fisherman sits atop thick ice on White Oak Park Lake last week. Recent cold weather has ice in the lake to a depth of around 6 inches in places, but due to the long-term effects of climate change, researchers are saying that this scene may be less likely to occur in the future as ice fails to cover lakes in Central Illinois.

NORMAL — Tens of thousands of Northern Hemisphere lakes that normally freeze over in the winter, including Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake, are at risk of going ice-free — harming water supplies, water quality and food sources as well as cultural, recreational and economic activities, according to research involving an Illinois State University faculty member.

Catherine O'Reilly, associate professor of geology, said the thing that was most surprising to her and the team of climate change researchers was “the number of lakes that are going to be changing” and “the speed at which we're going to see this happen.”

She said, “On some of the lakes, it's going to happen within a generation.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, is an outgrowth of earlier studies they have done on lake temperature trends.

“We wanted to figure out how many lakes will be affected by warming that they'll lose their ice cover,” she said.

Researchers had more than 500 with ice records and looked at factors such as air temperature, lake depth, elevation and shoreline complexity. Then they applied that to 1.4 million lakes in the “cold winter zone” that currently have annual or intermittent winter ice. The latter is defined as lakes with at least one ice-free year since 1970.

The “cold winter zone” includes part of Illinois, said O'Reilly, and Evergreen Lake and Lake Bloomington are “right on the edge.”

The impact already is being seen in Wisconsin in places such as Lake Geneva that already has more winters where it doesn't freeze over, she said.

Winter lake ice acts as a temperature “reset,” explained O'Reilly. Without it, lakes warm up sooner and stay warmer at the end of the summer, she said.

“Warm water tends to be connected with algae blooms,” she said, which cause water quality problems and can result in less oxygen in the water, harming fish.

The reproductive success of fish that prefer cooler water, such as walleye, trout and salmon, will be strongly affected, she said.

It's also an economic jolt. In 2011, $178 million was spent on ice fishing equipment in the United States, notes the report. Thousands of ice festivals bring in money to their communities. For example, O'Reilly said ice festivals in Rochester, Minn., raise about $340,000 a year.

Activities such as ice fishing and skating or playing hockey on frozen lakes will disappear in areas that lose winter ice cover.

“They are part of our cultural heritage. We're losing something we've always had,” she said, adding, "We have hit a tipping on some of the southern lakes. I don't think we can stop this from happening” in those areas.

But there is still time to take meaningful steps, she said.

“The United States could really be taking a lead on climate change issues,” said O'Reilly. “There are lots of opportunities for innovation.”

The controversial topic of climate change is receiving renewed attention in Washington, D.C., with Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Last week, the House conducted its first committee hearings on the subject in eight years.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has named eight Democrats to serve on a special climate change committee and six Republicans will be named later. Among the Democrats named to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is newly elected Illinois congressman Sean Casten of Downers Grove.

O'Reilly said it's important for individuals to take personal steps to lessen their environmental impact, but “the changes needed are institutional.”

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, are proposing a Green New Deal designed to eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint by 2030 by focusing on renewable energy.

However, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican from Collinsville, has criticized the Green New Deal as a “top down” government requirement that amounts to “wealth transfer schemes.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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