Editor's Note: From the February 20, 2015 New York Times article by Tatiana Schlossberg. http://nyti.ms/1vsvP7x
Under Thick Coating, an Icebreaking Ship Uncovers the Hudson
HUDSON, N.Y. — As the sun came up on Friday morning, the Sturgeon Bay, a 140-foot Coast Guard icebreaker, creaked and lurched through a frozen river, sending cracks scattering as dark water rose to the surface in pools, spraying beads of water that hit the ice like marbles, solid by the time they landed.
From New York Harbor to Albany, the Hudson River wends, ebbs and flows over 120 miles, except when it doesn’t. Right now north of West Point, the river is captive to the wind and weather, a field of ice up to 1.5 feet thick.
At least once a day lately, the Sturgeon Bay has been crunching and crashing up and down the Hudson, clearing paths through the crystallized expanse so that boats carrying supplies can reach the communities counting on them. Barges on the Hudson transport 70 percent of the home heating oil in the Northeast. In 2014, barges brought 20 million barrels of it northward, as well as 100,000 tons of dry goods, like salt and cement.
It is not exactly news that this winter is cold. But it is very cold. On the once-water in Hudson, N.Y., the temperature floated around 1 or 2 degrees, with a wind chill of minus 20 degrees at times.
Lt. Ken Sauerbrunn, the commanding officer of the Sturgeon Bay, said this winter was the worst he had seen since 2004, when Coast Guard boats were dispatched to New York Harbor to clear ice for the Staten Island Ferry.
The winter mission of the Coast Guard fleet: break up ice in the Hudson River, the Great Lakes and other waterways throughout the Northeast.
All river ice is not all the same. The deepest part of the river, where the cutters make their trail, is frozen with what is called “brash ice,” softer ice that the cutters break up. It refreezes, sometimes as quickly as an hour later, though usually overnight.
On either side of the brash ice is “fast ice,” as in fastened to the shore. This is the thicker ice, which, when snow covered, looks like stiff peaked egg whites, flattened out to a wrinkled meringue.
When fast ice is broken, sometimes by a boat, sometimes by wind, it breaks into larger, flat chunks, called plate ice. If plate ice is rounded, by bumping into other pieces, boats or by the wind, then it becomes pancake ice.
The Coast Guard cutters try not to break too much ice, since it can blow around and pile up in the river.
“We always say, ‘The more ice you break, the more you make,’ ” Lieutenant Sauerbrunn, 30, said. This is his second winter captaining the boat; he has been a member of its crew since 2002.
His ship, 662 tons with three decks, is specially designed to break ice: The hull has an S-shaped curve from its bow to its keel, which allows it to cut through the mounds; its weight enables it to effectively smash the ice; and its wake is perpendicular to the boat (most boats have a wake that comes out from the stern at 30 degrees), which allows for the greatest amount of ice to be broken. The Coast Guard has nine ships of this size deployed in the Northeast; there are also bigger and smaller cutters.
On Friday morning, the Sturgeon Bay and its crew of 17 was headed north when it received a call from two tugboats pushing barges that had gotten stuck in the ice the day before.
The cutter turned around, carving a wide loop in the ice with thunderous noise, like 100 people shoveling snow off the sidewalk at once.
The two tugboats, the Sassafrass and Fells Point, were a few hundred yards apart, stuck near Germantown, where the ice can pile up because of a narrow bend in the river, making what is known as a choke point.
There are a few choke points at the moment: one at West Point, another at Kingston, and this one, at Germantown.
The Sturgeon Bay did eight slow laps around the two boats, which took about three and a half hours at the stolid pace of 11.5 miles an hour.
Finally enough ice had been cut so the tugboats could break free. The Sturgeon Bay sailed on, loosening up the path of frozen boulders ahead.
Most of the ice in New York Harbor has floated down river from this temporary tundra, lodging itself in the curving coves around the harbor’s shores.
The water around the city, though, doesn’t freeze over anymore: The salinity of the water lowers the freezing point, and the brisk boat traffic keeps the water moving. (The New York Harbor froze completely in 1780, the hard winter during the American Revolution.)
Robin Bell, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory at Columbia University who specializes in the Hudson River, said that it also does not get as cold in New York City as it once did.
“You used to be able to drive a car from Manhattan to New Jersey,” she said, “so the river was probably colder then, but there was also probably less boat traffic.”
As for the future, she said there will probably be less ice in the river, especially around New York City, but it is impossible to predict. There is always the chance that a volcanic eruption in Iceland or elsewhere could cause a brief ice age, she said.
Still, the amount of ice that does float downstream is enough to hinder the East River Ferry, the Hudson River Ferry, and the Belford Ferry, which travels from the Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey to Manhattan, all operated by New York Waterway.
Pat Smith, a spokesman for New York Waterway, said it had tugboats out this winter to clear the way for boats.
“Whether we send them out depends on the wind and the tides,” he said.
The ice does not damage the boats’ hulls, but it can make dings in their propellers, Mr. Smith said.
If the propellers become dented, they have to be replaced by a diver. “Would you like to do that this time of year?” Mr. Smith said.
The Sturgeon Bay, though, was built for its job.
Cutting loops and figure-eights in the ice in its effort to free the Sassafrass, the Sturgeon Bay momentarily scraped to a stop, waiting to see if the tugboat could move.
On deck it was hard to remember it was a boat, that this tundra was a river. No water gently lapped against the hull; the boat did not rock with the wind and the waves. Two foxes ran in front of the bow. Everything was cold, white and quiet.
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