The Polar Vortex weather system plunged temperatures across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions to record lows this week, to below even Antarctican levels. On Wednesday Chicago hit a record low of -23 degrees Fahrenheit (nearly -31 degrees Celsius), with wind chills into the -50 degree range. Some 11 deaths were attributed to the extreme cold, while less serious consequences ranged from deep annoyance to immobilized cars, frozen pipes and kids home from school (see “deep annoyance”).
But amid the misery there was beauty to be found, as lakes and rivers turned into frozen fantasylands. Case in point: Niagara Falls, the legendary waterfalls straddling the border between New York State and Ontario, Canada, froze over to dramatic effect.
No, the falls didn’t freeze into one giant mass – that’s virtually impossible with such humongous amounts of flowing water – but it kind of looks that way.
Here’s how: If you’ve been to Niagara, you probably recall tiny, even microscopic, water droplets getting airborne off the falls. “During particularly cold temperatures, the mist and spray begin to form a crust of ice over top of the rushing water,” says David Adames, acting C.E.O. for the Niagara Parks Commission in Ontario. That crust makes it appear that the water has stopped, though it continues to flow beneath, as in these pictures from last year..
And this year:
To understand this and other Niagara phenomena, a bit of geography is helpful. The falls are around the midpoint of the Niagara River, which connects two of the Great Lakes, flowing generally south to north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and forming the international border.
Another occasional, unusual winter occurrence is the “ice bridge.” It forms when parts of the Niagara River upstream freeze then thaw and break up into ice slabs, which are propelled downstream by heavy winds and then over the falls where they kerplunk at the bottom. “This wet ice is then forced up out of the water below the falls where it freezes into a huge mass,” says Adames, “taking the appearance of a glacier; with the potential of building up to an incredible height of ten stories!”
It may be called a bridge, but don’t even think about going out on it; some early visitors learned the hard way. “Beginning in the 1880s, it became a popular pastime to gather on the ice for entertainment and to enjoy refreshments served out of outdoor huts set up on the frozen surface,” says a Niagara Parks press release. An “unfortunate mishap” in 1912 led to the deaths of three party people and put the kibosh on it ever since.
And although the falls have never exactly frozen, there was one incident when it appeared that way. Way back in 1848, Niagara Parks says, ice sheets from Lake Erie became trapped at the source of the Niagara River and cut off the water to the falls for about 30 hours. Locals were left with a silence which felt, well, eerie.
To see the frozen falls for yourself, you’d best get there soon. Temperatures are expected to rise into the low 40s Farhenheit (5 to 8 degrees Celsius) by early next week.