WNY Outdoors Blog

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lake Ontario froze


Some of the Great Lakes have a greater chance of freezing over than others. According to the Canadian Ice Service, Lake Ontario — shown here at the pier in Cobourg — has a mere 1-in-100 chance of having 90-per-cent ice coverage. Carroll Nichols was 16 and living on a farm in nearby Port Hope the day in 1934 when Lake Ontario beat the weather odds.

The day Lake Ontario froze over:
Can the events of 1934 be repeated? Forecaster says 'yes'

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Carroll Nichols is one of the few people alive who remembers when Lake Ontario last froze over. But then Nichols is over 90 now, and has lived on the same Port Hope farm all his life.   So Nichols knows: the freezing over of Lake Ontario is a very rare occurrence.  

When Nichols, a retired farmer, electrician and politician, spoke to MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, he was thinking back to February 1934, to the time his father came running excitedly into the house to tell the 16-year-old Carroll to grab his skates. The neighbours were skating on the bay out front of their farm, the elder Nichols exclaimed, and father and son were going to do it, too.  

They did skate on the lake that day, but that very night, Nichols recalls, a wind whipped up and broke up the ice. The bay was open water by the time the sun came up the next day.  

“It gave you a funny feeling, knowing that you’d been skating out there just a few hours earlier, and now it was open water,” he says.  

Some of the Great Lakes are far more likely to freeze over than others. The Canadian Ice Service (CIS) has been keeping statistics since the 1970s, and has calculated the likelihood of the lakes freezing to the point where 90 per cent of their surface is covered in ice.  

Lake Erie the most likeliest to freeze

Erie, the shallowest and farthest south of the lakes, is the most likely to freeze to that point, with a chance of 69 per cent. Huron comes next at a 22-per-cent probability, followed by Superior at 17 per cent and Michigan at 11 per cent.  

Lake Ontario has a mere 1-in-100 chance of having 90-per-cent ice coverage, the CIS estimates.  

Ray Assel, scientist emeritus with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., has estimated that in a year of average temperatures, about one-quarter of Lake Ontario will freeze over, while 90 per cent of Erie will be covered. And contrary to popular belief, severely cold temperatures are not essential for a freeze-over, he adds.  

Other factors that come in to play include high winds, as well as the temperatures in the months leading up to winter. A cool spring, summer and fall would keep water temperatures from reaching their normal highs, allowing them to cool down more quickly.  

The large surface areas of the Great Lakes also impede ice formation, because they are exposed to the force of winds and water currents. Warmer water is brought up to the surface and helps to hinder a freeze-over. Erie freezes faster than Ontario because it’s shallower, and is able to store less heat.  

Extreme cold was a factor in the winter of 1933-34, however. The cold set in early that season, with Toronto recording a low of minus 21.6 F., two days before New Year’s Eve. More minus-20 days were recorded in the city in January and February, and a record 60 straight hours of sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures was recorded. Belleville hit -31.  

East of Ottawa, the Ottawa River actually began to flow upstream because of an ice jam that clogged a series of rapids. Along Lake Ontario’s shores in the Niagara Peninsula, tender fruit trees were killed.  

On Feb. 9, the Toronto Star quoted Toronto harbourmaster F.J. Marigold as saying ice in the harbour was two feet thick in some places. “The whole harbour would be frozen over if we didn’t keep it open by running tugs through and breaking the ice up,” he said. “If we didn’t, you could drive a team (of horses) across it.”  

Could have walked from Toronto to Rochester, N.Y.

The Globe and Mail reported: “The cold wave left in its wake a series of events unprecedented in the memory of most.” Among them: “Lake Ontario froze over for the first time in 60 years or more. The 45-mile stretch between Cobourg and Rochester, N.Y., was a solid mass of ice,” said the Globe. The news was so big it made the New York Times.  

At the time, a regular car ferry, Ontario No. 2, connected Cobourg with Rochester, N.Y. The ship’s captain was Charles E. Redfern, who told a Cobourg newspaper he’d recorded temperatures of minus 30F on the bridge of Ontario No. 2.  

“A dog could have walked from Rochester to the Canadian shore if he avoided the air holes,” Redfern quipped. Yet there was little thought of cancelling the scheduled crossing. After all, the ship’s reinforced hull was built to navigate ice floes four feet deep.  

During that season, however, Ontario No. 2 became trapped in ice on two occasions and, during one of them, the ship’s crew reported they helped to pass the time by getting off and walking on the ice that covered the lake’s surface miles from shore.  

There were no satellites to snap images of the lakes back in 1934. That didn’t happen until the 1980s. So precisely how much of the lake was covered that year, and for how long, is only conjecture and based on anecdotal evidence.  

But the evidence of a total freeze-over is strong. A 1961 report done by the University of Toronto’s Department of Geological Sciences and the Canadian Meteorological Branch quoted a weather observer named A.W. Hooper and a former employee of the Ontario Car Ferry Co., R.S. Martin, as evidence that the lake had frozen over back in 1933-34, perhaps “to a thickness of half a foot or so.”  

There was even a report of a group of people from Toronto who tried to walk to Rochester, but turned back because of the failing light.  

Says Environment Canada’s Dave Phillips, “There were stories of people skating on the lake, losing sight of land and still finding the ice in good condition. The ice was said to have made incredible sounds as it cracked and moved.”  

Forces came together

It is suspected that Lake Ontario “nearly” froze again in the late 1970s and again in 1993. Other less reliable stories have it freezing across in 1912, 1893 and 1874.  

Glenn Johnson, meteorologist for 13WHAM TV in Rochester, says besides the February 1934 freeze, Lake Ontario may also have frozen over in 1855.  

What about climate change? With the warmer winters we have experienced in recent years, could Lake Ontario ever freeze again?  

Phillips says he still believes it’s possible. “Forces will still sometimes come together to create the conditions. There are those months you’ll have a Siberian cold spell that lasts three weeks, low winds. Yes, I think it could happen again.”  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — January 2011

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