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Seegfrörni - When Lake Zurich Froze Over

Imagine a weather forecast that predicts it's gonna be cold. Real cold. So cold that the lakes in Switzerland will freeze over. Hard to believe when all you get are mild winters? It hasn't always been this way.

During the winter of 1962/1963 it was so cold in Switzerland that Lake Zurich froze over! In Swiss German this phenomenon is called 'Seegfrörni' which simply means 'freezing over of a lake'. For a lake as big as Lake Zurich (about 88 km2 and 136m deep) that's pretty impressive. My mom was actually living in the Zurich area in those years and the frozen lake is one of the most vivid and fondest memories of her childhood.

Frozen Lake Zurich - Archive of Stadt Zürich

Just imagine, instead of taking the boat from Thalwil to Rapperswil you could simply walk, ski or bike there! I found an account from a police officer who was on duty on Lake Zurich during the time of the 'Seegfrörni' and would like to share some excerpts:

"Every morning and every evening we had to measure the thickness of the ice at five specific places. It was quite a dangerous job if you think that the water under the ice had a temperature of only 2C. That was why we pulled a rubber boat after us and were always ready to jump in. Unforgettable were the many eyes that observed us - some with admiration, some with spitefulness. We were always on the move to save water birds that were frozen on. [...]

The population observed the daily reports in the media and prepared for D-Day. Even SBB (Swiss Railways) planned to provide extra trains. But it wasn't time yet. The famous chief of water police, Admiral Heiri Müller, fetched the famous scientist, Dr. Rötlisberger, head of hydrologie and glaciology. On Januray 30th 1963 this ice specialist carried out an impressive endurance test. In Tiefenbrunnen, about 80 m from the shore, several barrels with a capacity of 200 liters each were arranged in a large circle. Far away from this circle, a whole was sawn into the ice and with the help of pumps and hoses the barrels were filled with water. The attending politicians and chief officers drew back from the circle until they reached their rubber boat on runners. The scientist kept on working with eyes, ears, pen and paper until it cracked. The barrels were gone and he was standing there quietly smiling on an emergency ladder. [...] Afterwards it was decided to open the ice for the public at 12.00 on February 1st 1963. [...]

On February 1st towards 12.000 the barriers by the stairs were removed. The people streamed from everywhere onto the ice. Tension was rising as the lake got darker and darker and the white ice disappeared more and more. We were wondering if we had everything ready for possible rescue mission. It was the most impressive day in my 38 years of duty as a police officer. [...]

Ice Skating on Frozen Lake Zurich - Archive of Stadt Zürich

On Saturday February 10th 1963 the thickness of the ice was already 25cm and over 150'000 people streamed onto the ice. We had already gotten used to the multitude. There were the usual accidents such as bruises and fractures from tumbles with or without ice skates. Of course there was laughter when police officers suddenly fell on the ground [...]. We water police officers couldn't hide our laughter when our boss overturned a motor sled in curve and unloaded the on-board chief of police. [...]"

The ice on Lake Zurich was open for 35 days during the winter of 1962/1963 and it damaged a few of the boating docks and other wooden and metal structures. A pretty impressive spectacle I imagine. I would love to experience a "Seegfrörni" one day. This winter, despite the current icy weather, chances are slim... maybe next year?!

Source for pictures and report:
Website of City Police Zurich - Seegfrörni 1962/1963



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