Ice Grips Upper Chesapeake and Delaware Bays

While neither the of the bays have iced over completely yet this winter, many of their tributaries have solid sheets of ice across them, wreaking havoc for watermen and emergency agencies.
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You’d think that the Chesapeake and Delaware bays had never iced before, judging by the hundreds of ice-jammed waterway pictures flying around social media over the last couple of weeks. While neither the of the bays have iced over completely yet this winter, many of their tributaries have solid sheets of ice across them, wreaking havoc for watermen and emergency agencies. Even the open waters of both bays are speckled with some impressive sheets of jagged ice about a mile wide or more.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aqua satellite took some intriguing shots of the Upper Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River areas after snow coated much of the area on January 28 (above image). The image shows fairly widespread icing in the Bay’s tributaries from the Susquehanna River, at the head of the Bay, down to the Little Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Much of Maryland’s Western Shore from the Patapsco River down to the Potomac are either free of ice, or only have mainly broken ice sheet patches.

JPG: Kent Narrows, which connects Eastern Bay and the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, had a thick coating of ice on January 29.

Kent Narrows, which connects Eastern Bay and the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, had a thick coating of ice on January 29.

On the Northern Delaware Bay, the Captain of the Port upgraded ice restrictions to “Condition II” on January 27, meaning that only steel-hulled vessels can navigate the waters of the Delaware River north of Reedy Point, in the Schuylkill River and Salem rivers, and within the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The large influx of salt water into the Delaware Bay (and its short geographic length) usually prevents freezing below the Salem River, but the Delaware River is susceptible thanks to the fresh water that feeds into it.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Hydrographic Division (DNR) readied three of its icebreakers on the Chesapeake Bay and began icebreaking operations with another at Kent Narrows on January 29. The DNR maintains four vessels capable of breaking through ice between six and ten inches thick. They are primarily used to keep tributaries open for watermen and emergency response vessels. Since the main shipping channels have remained largely free of thick ice, the United States Coast Guard has not yet been called upon to clear those areas.

The last time there was any measurable ice in Bay Country was during the winter of 2010-2011, when moderate swaths of ice filled Bay tributaries, requiring only minor icebreaking operations. In 2004, however, ice filled both Chesapeake and Delaware bays at thicknesses ranging from as little as three inches to as much as 20. DNR icebreaking vessels worked to keep Bay tributaries open for watermen and emergency vessels, while the United States Coast Guard (USCG) sent vessels south from New England to help keep shipping lanes open.

But those events wreaked about as much havoc as a dusting of snow compared to “The Big Freeze” of 1976-1977. During this brutal winter, the Bay’s tributaries started freezing well before Christmas. By late January into February, the Bay had frozen from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and Susquehanna River some 70 miles down the Bay. People drove out onto the ice with their vehicles; ice skated around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; and almost all of the inlets from Ocean City, MD, north to Cape Henlopen froze solid. While I was only seven years old that winter, I distinctly remember my father taking us to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to walk out onto the ice from the Eastern Shore. As “neat” as that was, I’m not anxious to repeat that again. (Who is, really?)

The Chesapeake Bay froze all the way across in areas during the winter of 1976-1977. Shown here are people checking out the ice by the Chesapeake Bay bridges. Photo courtesy of Baltimore or Less, photo taken by Bob Grieser

The Chesapeake Bay froze all the way across in areas during the winter of 1976-1977. Shown here are people checking out the ice by the Chesapeake Bay bridges. Photo courtesy of Baltimore or Less, photo taken by Bob Grieser

While additional bitter Polar Vortex-class cold is not forecast for the near future, below average temperatures are. We’ll keep an eye on things for you, so stay tuned. And don’t fear; it’s only 48 days until spring.

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