Sunday, December 31, 2000

Don't look for river to freeze over soon

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It may be cold outside, but it will have to get a lot colder for the Mighty Ohio to freeze over in Cincinnati.

        While meteorologists have predicted colder than usual temperatures this year, those temps won't dip any where near the string of subfreezing days in the Queen City's coldest winters in history — 1977 and 1978, when the river froze over.

[photo] Despite the creaking and groaning beneath their feet, a few brave (or foolish) individuals dared to walk across the surface of the Ohio River in January 1977 when it froze 12 inches thick.
(Enquirer file photo)
| ZOOM |
        “Those were very unusual years,” says Warren Bruns, hydrologist for the Ohio River Forecast Center in Wilmington. “The average temperatures were much colder then than they are now.”

        The river could freeze over, he said, “if we have a period where the cold weather continues for a month, maybe.”

        The lore of the Ohio River's freezes dates as far back as 1856 and the story of Margaret Garner, the Boone County, Ky., slave who crossed the ice on foot to freedom in Ohio.

        Although data go back only to 1874, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that the Ohio River at Cincinnati has frozen over in only 14 of the 126 winters on record. And while Cincinnati shorelines saw ice in the mid-1980s, there has not been significant ice on the river since those two winters in the '70s.

Current Tristate weather forecast
        Julie Reed, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, says an extraordinary number of factors must come into play to make the river freeze.

        In 1977, Cincinnati hit its record low of minus 25 Jan. 18. That winter, Cincinnatians suffered through a chilling 28 days at or below zero.

        The combination of extreme cold for an extended period of time coincided with a period of low flow (when the river is running slower), which caused the freeze.

        It was that year when, despite warnings from police that it is never safe to walk across the frozen river, daredevils crossed on foot. A few even tried unsuccessfully to drive their cars across.

        George McKee, a hydrologist in water management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Cincinnati, recalls the jigsaw pattern of massive ice blocks, jamming, jumbling and freezing together.

        “I walked out 20 feet, enough to say I walked on water, but I wasn't about to walk across,” he says.

        In 1978, cold temperatures were a factor, but they weren't nearly as low as the year before. That year, it was the massive amount of snow that caused the river to freeze.

        “Ice formed in the tributaries and then flowed into the river,” Ms. Reed says. “Just like if you dump a bunch of ice cubes into a bathtub, you're going to get a freeze.

        “We haven't had anything like that this year.”

        While the average temperature in December has been about 10 degrees below normal this year, it is still about 23.6 degrees. And temperatures have dropped below zero only twice — minus 1 Dec. 23 and minus 3 on Christmas Day. There have been no reports of ice on the Ohio in Cincinnati, but several locks and dams upstream have reported some.

        The closest was at Meldahl Lock and Dam in Clermont County. Friday morning, officials reported sheet ice about 2 inches thick running upstream about 2 miles. It was only about one-tenth across the waterway.

        Coast Guard officials say barge traffic has not been hindered.

        “If we keep on another week with the temperatures, I expect ice to form,” Mr. McKee says. “Whether it will be like '77 and '78 depends on how long it stays below freezing and how low it gets.”

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