He vividly recalls the last time the Bay froze over: in the brutal winter of 1977.
“Back then, you knew you were going to have a couple weeks at least in the winter when the island was frozen in –- completely locked in with ice, so nobody could get in or out, and no ferries were running,” said Marsh, a former waterman who is now Senior Manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Island Education Programs.
Marsh was 12 years old. He remembers that school was cancelled for a long time, because the teacher could not get from the mainland to the island. So Marsh and his friends built bonfires on the ice, skated around on the harbor, and hunted for the longest icicles.
Governor Marvin Mandel sent in helicopters with supplies. But Marsh and his brothers and sisters had plenty to eat. His said his parents always prepared for isolation in the winter on the small island. They stacked cans of food under the beds and in closets, and kept a pile of coal in the back yard as an emergency backup source of heat.
“This one morning we woke up, and there these giant white walls on the whole west side of the island,” Marsh recalled. “The ice on the main part of the Bay had broken up in the wind, and the westerly winds had driven it onto the shore. The ice had piled up, and they looked like ice burgs, but they were actually ice piles. They were as high as 40 feet tall, walls of ice on the whole west side of the Island.”
Since then, however, 37 years have passed -– and the Bay has not frozen over, since. By contrast, back in the 19th centuries and early 20th centuries, the Chesapeake Bay froze with some regularity. Newspapers from the period and historians give accounts of people sledding across the Bay, and rigging skates to boats to sail across the frozen waters.
Why the change?
Dr. Raymond Najjar, a Professor of Oceanography at Penn State University, said carbon dioxide pollution from the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels has caused a two degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperatures over the last century. Higher temperatures have meant less freezing of many rivers, bays, and ponds, Dr. Najjar said.
“We have been having –- and are going to keep having -- an impact on winter recreation, including skiing, and snowmobiling, and that sort of thing,” Dr. Najjar said. “So that is a concern, and something that can affect the economy. When I think about climate change, I think it’s about changing the character of a place.”
“I like to tell people, just in terms of the air temperature, the good news is our winters will be like South Carolina’s, where people like to go to retire,” Dr. Boesch said. “The bad news is the summers are going to be like Phoenix, but only with humidity. So we are going to have these milder winters, and much more oppressive summers.”
Beyond the reduction in ice, Dr. Boesch added, warmer temperatures have also meant that heat-sensitive species like soft-shell clams and eelgrass appear to be disappearing from the Bay. Meanwhile, southern species – including red drum, spotted sea trout, and brown pelicans – have moved in.
The heat also is expanding the volume of the ocean’s waters, and this is causing erosion in coastal areas. The erosion is being accelerated by a sinking of the land in many areas caused by natural geological shifts. Rising water levels also mean increased damage from flooding and tidal surges during storms, and the disappearance of many islands in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.
So it is not just that 12-year-old children on Smith Island in the future will not be able to wake up and see a frozen harbor and icicles trimming the crab shacks.
Someday, we will all wake up, and there may not be a place called Smith Island, among many other changes caused by global warming.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos, from top to bottom: Tug E. Clay Timanus working in ice on the Patapsco River, Feb. 2, 1936, from the H. Osborne Michael Collection of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Photo of Jessie Marsh by Tom Pelton. Photo of ice on Bay from Chesapeake Bay Program. Photo of sea ice from NOAA.)