Merrimack River's freezing patterns pose scientific questions
It's the winter of 1897, and nine men stand on the Merrimack River, a few dozen yards offshore from what is now Newburyport's downtown waterfront boardwalk. The photographer is much further out on the ice - perhaps 200 feet or so.
It's a question that the experts can't answer definitively. There are a number of possible and interesting culprits, nearly all of which reflect the incremental changes that mankind has made on the local environment. Add them all together, and it's clear that this is a very different river than the one that Newburyport's citizens knew a century ago.
Other anecdotes of river crossings include cold Januaries in 1857, 1859, 1867 and February of 1881. The year 1897 was notable in part due to the photo of icewalkers described in this story.
Different water levels
One of them is an increase in the amount of water flowing down the river in the wintertime. That change is caused primarily by dams that have increased what was once a low flow of water in the winter months. Low flow tends to allow water to freeze more readily.
An increase in urbanization along the river also caused significant changes. More development means more rapid runoff during storm events, Sokolow said. That means more water in the river, and a faster flow.
What's in the river?
One of the unknown factors is the impact of contaminants in the river. It was only fairly recently - within the past couple of decades or so - that the government began conducting regular and comprehensive water quality studies. About every three years or so the tests are done.
"Unfortunately they weren't doing water quality tests way back when," he said.
"There's a lot of mysteries in the rivers around the state," he said.
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