NEW CUMBERLAND - The Army Corps of Engineers is seeing more ice on the Ohio River this winter than in recent years.
The unusual amounts and thickness of the ice has Army Corps engineers taking special steps to operate the 20 locks and dams along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. The operation of the locks and dams is crucial to many industries along the river which depend on barges to transport materials.
The Army Corps of Engineers says it will also be paying close attention to the water level of the river and its tributaries this spring as ice thaws.
Hydrologist Lewis Kwett with Pittsburgh District Water Management of the Army Corp of Engineers says that during typical winters it is normal for them to see icing in the northern part of the district in the upper Allegheny Basin. However this year, they are seeing "significant icing" throughout the Monongahela and Youghiogheny basins as well.
"We're also seeing 2 to 4 inches of ice over significant portions of the Ohio River, which is also unusual," said Kwett.
Despite the thickness of the ice in some areas, the Army Corps of Engineers strongly advises against walking out on the frozen river. They say that the thickness of ice can be deceiving; and one can quickly break through on ice that appears frozen solid.
Army Corps of Engineers public relations manager Dan Jones says the ice presents a challenge to the engineers who operate the locks and dams along the Ohio River, such as the New Cumberland Locks and Dams in Stratton.
"We have to be careful with the ice, especially if a barge is pushing ice into our lock chamber," said Jones
Jones explained that when a barge comes down the river it often pushes a large amount of ice in front of it. Engineers respond by letting the ice in to the lock chamber before the barge, then emptying the ice out the other side before letting the barge in to the lock chamber. This added process of filling and emptying the lock chamber nearly doubles the time barges spend in the locks according to Jones. River barge companies are aware of the added time needed to get though the locks and use smaller groups of barges to get through the locks quicker.
"They usually have 15 barges so now they're cutting it down to 10 to make it easier to travel up and down the river," said Jones
When spring finally rolls around this year, Army Corp engineers say that flooding, which is always a possibility along the Ohio River in springtime, could be exasperated by melting river ice. Kwett says it is the job of the Army Corp of Engineers to address ice jams that could cause flash flooding when they melt or break up. However, he notes that there is only so much the Army Corp can do, and even then they risk making the problem worse.
"That said, there is an extremely limited set of tools available to deal with flooding caused by ice jams; and the tools we have are not very reliable," said Kwett. "Taking any sort of action to attempt to resolve an ice jam at one location may only increase the likelihood of a more significant jam at another (downstream) location."
Kwett says those who live in areas with a history of ice jam flooding should be vigilant when the thaw begins. Even those who live along tributaries should be aware that ice jams downstream can lead to rapid rises in the water level of a stream he says. An abrupt drop in the level of a stream can be a warning sign of an ice jam upstream. When this happens, he says a sudden rush or rapidly moving water will almost certainly follow when the ice jam gives way.
With forecasts calling for below freezing temperatures through next week, Kwett says the Army Corp does not anticipate thawing to take place in the near future. He notes that the same forecast predicts "above normal" amounts of precipitation that could result in significant runoff and in turn cause rivers to rise toward month's end.
"Currently we're seeing up to a foot of snow in the headwaters, with up to 2 inches of water equivalent," said Kwett. "If we add another inch or two of potential runoff to that, it would certainly increase the chances of significant flooding, particularly when there is ice in the mix."
Kwett says it is difficult to entirely predict how this year's ice thaw will occur, but there are a few scenarios that could play out.
"If we have a gradual period of warming, with regular moderate rainfall to help rot the ice pack, it is possible that the ice will melt first in the southern part of the Allegheny basin, move out of the system, and we'll have a spring free of flooding," said Kwett. "A sudden warming trend with a heavy rainstorm, like we had in '96, could certainly lead to a significant flood."