No, Niagara Falls is not “frozen solid”


The U.S. side of the Niagara Falls on January 8, 2014. (REUTERS/Aaron Harris)

You’ve probably seen, and perhaps marveled at, these pictures of a frozen-solid Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, like everything of beauty and wonder on the Internet, these are either totally misleading or outright false.

Here’s the thing: Niagara Falls gets cold every year. (I know, as I’m from there.) The average temperature in Niagara Falls in January is between 16 and 32 degrees, not terribly different from the 19 to 23 degrees expected today. Naturally, it being that cold, ice floes and giant icicles form on the falls, and in the Niagara River above and below the falls, every year. The ice at the base of the falls, called the ice bridge, sometimes gets so thick that people used to build concession stands and walk to Canada on it. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It is not, to put it bluntly, big polar vortex news. Case in point: Many of the pictures going around today are, in fact, from several years ago. Here’s a (really beautiful) description of what the falls look like in winter, from a 2004 story in The Buffalo News:

In the early winter, the rime on the grass starts forming as delicate, lacy feathers. The mist coats the trees nearest the brink with frozen glaze, bending some nearly to the ground, said [Niagara Falls historian Paul] Gromosiak. One brutally cold February day, Gromosiak said, he crossed the bridge to Goat Island and headed for Terrapin Point. ‘All the trees were bowing to the river, with the weight of the ice on their branches. And I looked up at the sky and saw this vortex of ring-billed gulls, thousands of them … The natural scene overwhelms the artificial scene around it. Especially on a day when the ice bridge is massive and you have huge mounds of ice below the American Falls, ice on all the trees, the sun shining and the rainbow in the sky. It diminishes even those skyscrapers on the Canadian side.’

Don’t get me wrong — the so-called polar vortex was abnormal, even for regions that typically see harsh winter weather. While Niagara Falls hasn’t frozen over, for instance, unprecedented ice jams on the river above the falls caused minor flooding in the area. But that still doesn’t compare to the Blizzard of ’77, as one local reporter put it, and it certainly doesn’t compare to the giant ice floes that almost stopped the falls one winter in the 19th century. In the grand scheme of Western New York weather, this is really no big deal. Look how chill this guy is about it.

As for the claim that the falls could “freeze over,” that’s just sort of ridiculous. Nearly 76,000 gallons of water flow over the American and Bridal Veil falls every second, at a speed of 32 feet per second. It would take a lot more than a few days of cold weather to completely shut that off.

RELATED: The unintentional beauty of the polar vortex 

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Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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