It was nothing safe to walk on, but much Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay was locked up in ice this weekend. Several weeks of teeth-chattering, unseasonable cold and arctic low temperatures in the single digits set up a wide layer of salty bay ice from roughly the entrance of New York Harbor in Sandy Hook Bay to the mouth of the Raritan River in Raritan Bay.
The last time any measurable ice was seen on this stretch of the estuary was during the winter of 2010-2011. The ice also extended from the bay to the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, where ice boaters were celebrating the cold weather to sail on frozen waters at speeds topping 50 mph near Red Bank, NJ. Further north, there was ice north of West Point in the Hudson River up to 1.5 feet thick, so thick that the Coast Guard had to send icebreaker vessels to clear paths so cargo ships carrying fuel and other supplies could reach upstate communities in New York State.
With light colds and cold temperatures below 28 degrees, it was no surprise that these waters iced up so fast, since they are relatively shallow and still. Right now surface water temperatures for much of Lower New York Bay are between 24 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold enough to make ice.
Saltwater freezes at a lower temperature than freshwater. Many people know that at 32 degrees Fahrenheit freshwater freezes, but saltwater freezes at about 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit, because of the salt in it. This is because saltwater is an entirely different chemical solution, it’s no longer just H2O, there are now salt molecules added, which help to lower the freezing point of the solution.
The estuary and the harbor are not completely frozen over though. There are small pockets of open water in Sandy Hook Bay, and a large area of open water in the deeper parts of the harbor near the Verrazano Bridge and in the Upper Bay near New York City, where ice flows from the Hudson River are flowing down.
Despite the bitter Polar Vortex-class cold, this has not been the worst winter ever. The “Big Freeze” of 1976-1977 gave most of New Jersey an average temperature from December through February from 27 to 29 degrees F. During that brutal winter, many creeks and tributaries started freezing well before Christmas. I distinctly remember as a child watching people driving out onto the ice with their vehicles onto the Toms River in South Jersey. A crazy sight for sure!
Historically, there was also the winter of 1934 that gave New Jersey an average temperature in February of 18.6 degrees F, and a very cold one day low temperature of -26 degrees F. There was also the winter of 1893 when it was so cold and so much ice had frozen Lower New York Bay that the New York Times reported the best way for a person to get from Staten Island to Sandy Hook Bay was to walk over the thick ice.
The cold weather pattern for this winter does not seem ready to change anytime soon. Even though February is the shortest month of the year, the ice and bitter cold this year makes it feel like the longest. Winter is losing its charm.
Thankfully, the days are getting longer and the sun is slowly climbing higher. Spring is only several weeks away, though not soon enough.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com