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Remembering When the Chesapeake Bay Used to Freeze in the Winter

FrozenbayChesapeakeBayMaritimeMuseumJessie Marsh is a veteran boat captain on Smith Island whose family has kept a keen eye on the Chesapeake Bay’s weather for some 300 years.

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.  

Jessie Marsh“In the winter of 1976-1977, we had the biggest freeze in my lifetime,” Marsh said. “Smith Island was froze in for nine weeks straight.”

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.”

FrozenbayCHESAPEAKEBAYPROGRAMSince 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.” 

NOAA photo of iceDr. Donald Boesch, President of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that less frequent freezing of the Bay is part of a much bigger picture. 

“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.)

Comments

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It froze over in 93. It was below 0 for 2 weeks. I remember driving across the bay bridge going to college and the bay was totally frozen over.

Thanks, Neil. I'm not sure the southern Bay, or the mid-Bay around Smith Island, froze over solid in 1993.

The professors claim is unproven: "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".

A TRUE SCIENTIST DOES NOT REPORT HYPOTHESIS as fact.

Average Ocean and air temperatures may/may not be increasing, but assuming they are, there is nothing we, as a nation can do about it. China does, and India soon will, produce more CO than we do. The world does not dance to our tune. We should do what makes sense, but we should not turn our economy upside down in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable. Ice ages and warming stages have come and gone many times in the past, and will continue to so, regardless of what we do. Follow the money and see who profits by the "Global Warming" hysteria - the so called "Environmental" groups and their lackeys. Things change - deal with it.

There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activities. Yes, there are some people who still dispute climate change, just as there are some people who still don't believe in evolution. For a recent National Academies of Science report on how very solid the evidence is, visit this website: http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx

Bud, if you want to "follow the money," perhaps you should follow the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry and its attempts to confuse the public about the very solid science behind climate change. There is far more money in coal, oil, and gas than in environmental organizations.

The world may or may not "dance to our tune" all the time. But that doesn't mean that America shouldn't stand up and try to lead on an important issue like this.

Our Father took us from Reisterstown to Sandy Point (on a school day) because he wanted us to witness History . The bay was so frozen over that the Ice had pushed on to the shore forming a large wall that you had to climb over to get out onto the bay, we walked out a small distance. Some where in our family archives we have some poloroids of that day.

Cool! What year was that, John?

Please do a spell check before posting.

Thanks, Lee. I did a spell check, and am not sure what you are referring to.

What misspelled word to you see?

I've lived in Phoenix all my life except for the 2 years I was stationed in the Army at Fort Myer in Arlington VA beginning November 1967. While I do love the 4 distinct seasons of the DC area, I was never more miserable with summer heat than the summer of 1968. Upon my discharge I returned to my home in Phoenix. Even today after brief summer visits to SoCal I am welcomed back to Phoenix by beautifully warm dry evenings. I, like 3 million others, love this place - heat and all.

So Dr. Boesch (Chicken Little) is doubly ignorant. First on the science of climate change and second on the comfort those changes can bring about. BTW - plants breath in CO2 (carbon dioxide) and exhale O2 (oxygen). So, for the scientifically challenged, more CO2 means warmer climate means more arable land means more plants means more FOOD AND more Oxygen AND SURPRISE - MORE POLAR BEARS!! YEA!!!. So far - not seeing a problem here. We've been here before - many times in the past million years - and the earth adjusts.

Maybe the good "Dr." can scare people with meteor strikes or the sun burning out or a volcanic eruption. Then Billy Clinton can sacrifice some more virgins!! No wonder the US is way behind in the fields of science and engineering. There are just so many embarrassingly stupid people coming out of our edjumacation system - like that inconvenient moron - Al Gore (No Al - Ya didn't invent the internet).

Just call me Mr. Bill -- as in Oh No! Mr. Bill

How common was it for the Bay to freeze in the years prior to 76-77?

My brothers and I remember walking out to the White Rocks off Rivera Beach and have pictures but can not remember what year that was. WE think it was between 1958, 59, 60. Did the bay freeze over any of those years?

1977 was a very cold January averaging 22.9 degrees for the month for the BWI. This was the coldest January temperature since records were kept for the Baltimore area dating back to 1872. As far as the Bay freezing on a much more regular basis in the early 20th century, the data just does not bear that out. So far this month we are averaging a little under 29 degrees, though it will probably average colder than that once we finish out this cold month. We are just beginning to see ice in the northern part of the bay north of the Baltimore Harbor. The only times we've averaged colder than this current months average were in 1893, 1904, 1912, 1918, 1940, 1961, 1970, 1977, 1981 and a couple more since 1981. Those would be the only years we could have possible frozen over in Januaary

Using insulting language and referring to people as morons does not make your argument any more or less convincing. It simply shows frustration at an inability to articulate some valid points.

The cycle of ice ages alternating with the warm interglacial ages that separate them is convincing enough for those who are able to apply rational analysis sans the hype. The large body of geological research (consensus if you will)indicates that we are approximately 18,000 years into what is hypothesized to be an approximately 50,000 year warming period as we emerge from the most recent ice age. What materials humans burn or don't burn will make little difference in regard to global temperatures by the end of this warming cycle.

Sea levels will no doubt rise, what are now coastal areas will become ocean bottom and littoral areas. There really is nothing that can be done to prevent it. Best policy (in my opinion) is to accept the inevitability and do what can be done to adapt to the changes. (i.e. move to higher ground, stop building and rebuilding cities in vulnerable areas.) Dinosaurs could not stop the ice age that led to their demise, and for all the hype and elf-recrimination, humans will not be able to stop the coming inter-glacial. Like it or not, it is going to get much much warmer, and the ice caps will surely melt, as they have in previous inter-glacial periods.

So, Michael, we should not even try to stop the climate change that you admit is happening?

A vast body of scientific evidence does support the fact that human activity is helping to cause this global temperature increase.

This truth suggests that humans can also slow down this temperature increase. It may not be quick or easy. But it would be wrong to assert that it would be impossible. Of course it's possible.

The question is, how much do we care about protecting a healthy climate and planet for future generations?

I thought it snowed nearly 3 feet in '77. I can't remember, I was only 6 yrs old. I was wondering if that "helped" the bay to "freeze-over" if these two events coincided. Also, I thought that CO2 was such a small percentage of the atmosphere and that the current measurement of 0.038% CO2 vs. 0.03% in the 1940's is not a significant amount to contribute to "global warming" [now being called "climate change"]. Again, just hard to believe that 80 parts of carbon dioxide per 1 million is enough to affect the climate. I was thinking that the cyclic reversing of magnetic poles of the big fusion reactor 93M miles away was the primary culprit. Oh well, doesn't matter, I rather be HOT than COLD anyday! This 10-15 degrees every morning really sucks!!!! LOL

There have been many years over the past two decades when many rivers around the bay have frozen over. It takes a very unusal situation for the main stem of the bay to freeze, so that indicator alone is hardly evidence of anthropogenic climate change. I guess what bothers me most whenever this topic comes up is the fact that we never really talk about personal responsibility and the nuts and bolts behind human inputs that are suspected to cause global climate change. We don't talk about the consumptive behavior of humans, we don't discuss the fact that we build and live in houses that are many times larger than needed, we don't talk about the lack of adequate public transportation, and we don't talk about unchecked development all of which are responsible for massive energy demand. We also don't talk about all of the toxics and carcinogens that are by products of burning fossil fuels which should be of equal or greater concern. Environmental literacy sucks in this region and the politicians love to capitalize on it. Wake up and educate yourself folks. If you had to argue whether fracking or wind power was a better option for decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, could you do it? Could you state multiple pieces of evidence on either side? If not, you are part of the problem so do something about it. Environmental health isn't about politics, it's about personal choices and knowing the facts - which admittedly are increasingly difficult to decipher.

Personal choices are certainly important, Joe. For example, we can choose to live in a giant McMansion built in a cornfield or renovate a modest-sized, abandoned row house in Baltimore. We can choose to drive hours every day in an SUV, or live in a place where we can walk to work.

But improving the environment is also highly political -- because none of our individual choices will ever, on their own, have the collective power of government regulation. My choice to drive a small car will never convince other people to stop driving gas guzzlers. But federal fuel efficiency regulations will compel everyone to burn less fuel. Much more effective. And to get environmental regulations or laws, we need to act through the democratic process, which means through a political process. Politics are often ugly. But that's how things work in the U.S.A. -- which is beautiful.

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