Nature Notes: The Ice Cometh

Brrrr, it is very cold out there!
Almost all of the South Fork’s freshwater bodies, including the large ones like Fort Pond in Montauk, are frozen this week. Jane Bimson

Having mentioned a paucity of winter birds in last week’s “Nature Notes,” I then received some confirmations and negations. Karen Rubinstein, who coordinates the annual Montauk Christmas bird count held on Dec. 16, said the preliminary total came to 122 species, a bit low as Montauk counts go. Joan Laufer of Northwest Woods sent me pictures of a red-breasted woodpecker and a chickadee, two of the many birds visiting her feeder. A Ms. Hamilton, a lover of all things wild, on Shore Road in Lazy Point called to tell me she had several species, a probable pine warbler among them. They like her two heated birdbaths, which she picked up at Wildbird Crossing in the Bridgehampton Commons.

I had asked where the blue jays had gone, and Matthew Galcik of Greenwich Street in Montauk emailed me a picture of some of the 20 or so that come to feed on his lawn every morning. You may remember Matthew as the one who raised and released into nature a slew of monarch butterflies last summer. Lastly, Jean Held of Sag Harbor sent me photos of a hermit thrush and fox sparrow, two of the several different winter birds at her feeder and birdbath during the post-Christmas week.

Those feeders and birdbaths took on a special significance in the last few days of 2017 when the temperature outside plummeted and never rose above the freezing mark — and there is little sign of its letting up as we look into the first few weeks of January. Brrrr, it is very cold out there! Almost all of our freshwater bodies, including the larger ones like Fort Pond in Montauk, are frozen solid. Interestingly, Lake Montauk used to freeze over nearly every winter before it was opened to Block Island Sound and became marine in the mid-1920s. Now it rarely freezes over.

It has been so cold, however, that saline Noyac Bay is half frozen over, a lovely sight by the light of the full moon on Monday evening. Noyac Bay is one of the first saltwater bodies on Long Island to freeze come a very cold December, January, or February, and in fact, served as venue for many local iceboat racers in 1980, our first winter as Noyac residents, and during several winters thereafter. The Great South Bay, which has served iceboaters over the years since the early 1900s, froze over in February 1979 and remained frozen until the end of the first week of March.

Everyone knows that marine waters freeze much less frequently than fresh waters because of their high salt content. The larger the saltwater body along our temperate Atlantic Coast the less likely it is likely to freeze solid. Every time a local bay freezes over it reminds us of an old story: how the red fox got to Gardiner’s Island, which was surrounded by marine waters long before the red fox arrived on Long Island from the west. The story goes that one or more were seen moving over the ice from the South Fork mainland toward the island during a very cold winter in the 1800s, when the Peconics froze over solid.

At our latitude the Atlantic never freezes solid, but the next largest water body in our area, the Long Island Sound, has become ice-locked. In 1917 the Sound froze to the extent that motor vehicles were able to cross from Port Jefferson to Stamford, Conn., so one Connecticut paper wrote. In 1925 another brutally cold winter froze the salt waters around Manhattan to 18 inches thick, thus no ships could land or leave. Perhaps the greatest freeze occurred in January of 1780, when almost all of the waters along the North Atlantic coast were frozen and impassable by boat.

According to a principle first elucidated by the Greek mathemetician Archimedes, when ice forms on a body of water it does not change the elevation of the sea level. Put an ice cube in a glass of water to demonstrate that rule of physics. However, glacial ice breaking off from a mainland surface does raise sea level accordingly. In the present millennium, glacial meltwater input and warming global temperatures have been causing sea level to rise about 2.8 millimeters, or .2 inches per year. That’s about an inch every five years. At today’s rate of temperature increase, in 60 years sea level would rise a foot. However, the rate of rise is increasing as the rate of glacial melting, or calving, increases, and the anticipated sea level rise by the beginning of the next millennium is actually about one meter, or a little more than three feet.

On some northern and southern coasts near large glaciers, actual sea level rise will be lower, because the land will rise as the weight of the glacier pressing down on it is reduced. Hence, the relative sea level rise will be moderated. 

During the height of the last global glaciation some 15,000 or so years ago, sea level was much, much lower than it is now, as so much of the ocean’s water was sequestered in the global ice masses. It will be a long, long time, if ever, before that happens again. If all of the world’s glaciers melt and the waters warm and expand, perhaps sometime in the very distant future most of Long Island, including the two forks, would be underwater.

When it’s as cold as it has been thus far in the new year, it’s hard to think of global warming because it’s hard to stay warm. We’ll just have to wait and see, but in the meantime, no harm can be done by turning off the lights when they are not in use and maximizing solar and wind-power output. Many Long Island schools are solarizing their roofs. The Bridgehampton School is going one step further, using the subsurface heat of the earth to help heat the school in winter and cool it in the warm months. A big “Yay” for the Killer Bees!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at