Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Episode 617 (2-21-22): Ice on the River

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:37).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 2-18-22.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of February 21, 2022.  This revised episode from February 2018 is part of a series this year of winter-related episodes.

MUSIC – ~15 sec - Lyrics: “Mama, oh mama, it was out by the water’s edge.”

This week, that excerpt of “Waters Edge,” from the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Va.-based band, The Steel Wheels, sets the stage for going to a water body’s edge to explore freezing water.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds to the following mystery sounds, and see if you can guess what cold-water experience was taking place.   And here’s a hint: the speaker and the water were both running.

SOUNDS - ~15 sec

If you guessed, wading into an icy river, you’re right!  You heard me at the edge of the New River in Giles County, Va., on January 1, 2018, wading—very quickly!—into the partially iced-over river.  After nighttime temperatures in the teens or lower for several days, about half of the river’s surface in some locations on that New Year’s morning was covered in ice.

Rivers throughout Virginia will freeze during notably cold winter spells, but it’s not a routine occurrence.  River freeze-ups are really noteworthy in the tidal sections of the James, Rappahannock, and other Commonwealth rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; in those sections, the water is somewhat salty, called brackish, so it has a lower freezing point.

When rivers do freeze, ice typically forms first at the river edges, where in slow currents surface water can lose heat to colder air while not being mixed with warmer water.  This border ice can also form in slower currents around rocks or other obstacles well away from shore.  In stronger currents that keep the water mixed, if the whole water column drops just below the freezing point, ice can form around tiny particles; this type of ice is called frazil.  Sometimes frazil gets transported to the river bottom and attaches there, forming what’s known as anchor ice.   If the water keeps losing heat to colder air, these and other kinds of ice can accumulate horizontally and vertically, eventually covering the river and perhaps filling much of its depth.

Ice may also be carried along by the current, particularly after warming temperatures break up a solid ice cover.   If these ice floes get blocked by natural or human-made structures, ice jams can occur.  Ice jams can block a river’s flow, leading possibly to upstream flooding.  And when an ice jam eventually breaks, it can suddenly release large amounts of water and ice, causing possible hazards downstream.

Thanks to Blacksburg friends for recording the New Year’s Day New River wade-in.  Thanks also to The Steel Wheels for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 15 more seconds of “Waters Edge.”

MUSIC - ~16 sec – Lyrics: “Mama, oh mama, it was out by the water’s edge.”


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 406, 2-5-18.

“Waters Edge,” from the 2013 album “No More Rain,” is copyright by The Steel Wheels, used with permission. More information about The Steel Wheels is available online at http://www.thesteelwheels.com/.  This music was used previously by Virginia Water Radio in Episode 529, 6-15-20.

The New River wade-in sounds were taken from a video recording on January 1, 2018, below McCoy Falls in Giles County, Va.  Thanks to Virginia Water Radio friends Sarah, John, and Alan for making the recording possible.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.


Virginia Water Radio host Alan Raflo in the New River in Giles County, Va., January 1, 2018.  Photo courtesy of John Imbur.

Ice on the New River at McCoy Falls in Montgomery County, Va., January 1, 2018.

Ice on Goose Creek in Loudoun County, Va., January 20, 2018.

Ice jam in the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., February 1918.  Photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed online at https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2008011359/, as of 2-22-22.  For more historic Potomac River ice photos in the Library of Congress, see https://www.loc.gov/photos/?q=Potomac+River+Ice.


The seriousness of the threats river ice can pose is highlighted in the following information from the National Weather Service, Chicago Forecast Office, “Volunteer River Ice Spotter Network,” online at https://www.weather.gov/lot/river_ice_spotter_network, accessed 2/17/22:

“The National Weather Service (NWS) Chicago/Rockford, IL, office uses information from volunteer spotters along area rivers to monitor the development of river ice which may lead to flooding.  Ice jams are often localized and may occur away from river gauges.  River ice spotters share important information such as extent of ice cover, ice cover trends, and location of ice jams which is very important for issuing timely warnings.

“River ice can be a serious problem during some winters.  Chronic ice jam locations on the Rock, Fox, and Kankakee Rivers have up to a 1-in-2 chance of experiencing an ice jam in any given year, and almost a 1-in-3 chance of experiencing ice jam flooding in a given year.” 

The Chicago office is one of several NWS offices that seek river ice spotters in winter.


Kevin Ambrose, The Potomac River has a history of disastrous ice floes during a rapid thaw, Washington Post, January 10, 2018.

Spyros Beltaos, ed., River Ice Jams, Water Resources Publications LLC, Highlands Ranch, Colo., 1995.

Spyros Beltaos, ed., River Ice Breakup, Water Resources Publications LLC, Highlands Ranch, Colo., 2008. 

Tamara Dietrich, Arctic blast not enough to freeze James, York rivers, [Newport News, Va.] Daily Press, February 19, 2015.

Don M. Gray and Terry D. Prowse, “Snow and Floating Ice,” Chapter 7 of Handbook of Hydrology, David R. Maidment, ed., McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1993. 

Erica Leayman, Frozen Potomac River, Lakes Show Just How Cold It Is; From boats stuck on the ice to people skating on reflecting pools, here's a visual reminder of the bitter cold around the DC area, Old Town Alexandria [Va.] Patch, January 3, 2018.

National Weather Service, Blacksurg, Va., Forecast Office, “Observed Weather Reports/Preliminary Monthly Climate Data for Blacksburg,” online at https://www.weather.gov/wrh/climate?wfo=rnk.

National Weather Service, Chicago, Illinois, “River Ice Guide,” online (as a PDF) at https://www.weather.gov/media/lot/hydro/outreach/NWS_River_Ice_Guide_2020.pdf.

University of Minnesota-Duluth/Minnesota Sea Grant, “Lake and River Ice: Formation and Classification,” by John A. Downing, February 25, 2021, online at https://seagrant.umn.edu/news-information/directors-column/lake-river-ice-formation-classification. 


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Weather/Climate/Natural Disasters” subject categories.

Following are links to several other winter-related episodes, including episodes (listed separately) on some birds that reside in Virginia typically only in winter.

Frost – Episode 597, 10-4-21.
Freezing and ice – Episode 606, 12-6-21 (especially for grades K-3).
Ice on ponds and lakes – Episode 404, 1-22-18 (especially for grades 4-8).
Polar Plunge® for Special Olympics – Episode 356, 2-20-17.
Snow physics and chemistry – Episode 407, 2-12-18 (especially for high school grades).
Snow, sleet, and freezing rain – Episode 613, 1-24-22.
Snow terms – Episode 612, 1-17-22.
Surviving freezing – Episode 556, 12-21-20.
Winter precipitation and water supplies – Episode 567, 3-8-21.
Winter weather preparedness – Episode 605, 11-29-21.
Water thermodynamics – Episode 610, 1-3-22.

Bird-related Episodes for Winter

Audubon Society Christmas Bird CountEpisode 607, 12-13-21.
American Avocet – Episode 543, 9-21-20.
Brant (goose) – Episode 615, 2-7-22.
Canvasback (duck) – Episode 604, 11-22-21.
Common Goldeneye (duck) – Episode 303, 2-15-16.
Green-winged Teal (duck) – Episode 398, 12-11-17.
Grebes (Horned and Red-necked) – Episode 233, 9-29-14.
Loons – Episode 445, 11-5-18.
Fall migration – Episode 603, 11-15-21.
Northern Harrier – Episode 561, 1-25-21.
Snow Goose – Episode 507, 1-13-20.
Tundra Swan – Episode 554, 12-7-20.
Winter birds sampler from the Chesapeake Bay area – Episode 565, 2-22-21.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs 

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-3 plus 5: Force, Motion, and Energy
5.3 – There is a relationship between force and energy of moving objects.

Grades K-5: Earth and Space Systems
K.9 – There are patterns in nature.
1.7 – There are weather and seasonal changes.
2.7 – Weather patterns and seasonal changes affect plants, animals, and their surroundings.
3.7 – There is a water cycle and water is important to life on Earth.
4.4 – Weather conditions and climate have effects on ecosystems and can be predicted.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
3.8 – Natural events and humans influence ecosystems.
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.

Physical Science
PS.8 Work, force, and motion are related.

Earth Science
ES.8 – Freshwater resources influence and are influenced by geologic processes and human activity.
ES.12 – The Earth’s weather and climate result from the interaction of the sun’s energy with the atmosphere, oceans, and the land.

CH.6 – Phases of matter are explained by the kinetic molecular theory.

PH.3 – There are relationships among force, mass, and acceleration.

2015 Social Studies SOLs 

Grades K-3 Geography Theme
1.6 – Virginia climate, seasons, and landforms.

Virginia Studies Course
VS.10 – Knowledge of government, geography, and economics in present-day Virginia.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – How selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels (* indicates episode listed above in the “Related Water Radio Episodes” section).

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade. Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
*Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
*Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.
*Episode 606, 12-6-21 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.