ROCKLAND, Maine — With the average temperature in the first half of February measured in Bangor at 4.7 degrees, and 100 inches of snow burying Washington County, it has been a cold, hard winter for all in Maine.
But just like the old-timers say, winters used to be worse.
No one knows how tough it is right now more than Chief Marc Moore of the Coast Guard Cutter Tackle, based in Rockland Harbor. During the winter, his ship breaks up the ice that has formed in shipping harbors, such as Searsport and Bucksport, and goes up the Penobscot River as far as Brewer. But this year, he’s had to spend more time closer to home.
“This is the first time in years that Rockland Harbor actually froze solid, with about four inches of ice,” he said Wednesday.
The cold, snowy conditions have meant that when Moore’s seven-person crew takes the Tackle up the Penobscot, their work is cut out for them. The river now has a layer of ice covered by a foot and a half of snow — covered by another layer of ice and another foot and a half of snow, Moore said. The Tackle has spent the last two weeks trying to break up the thick mass that re-freezes overnight.
“Penobscot River ice is pretty loud. It’s almost like being inside a washing machine all day that’s got a couple of rolls of quarters in it,” he said. “And it’s like being in a ten mile per hour car crash, all day long. It’s fun for 20 minutes, but the next twelve hours is enough to drive you mad. When there’s snow on top of the ice, it makes it extremely hard for us to break through.”
Yet despite the thickness of the river ice, the cold, and the back-to-back storms, this year still cannot compare to notable times in the past when long stretches of sub-zero weather caused the entire upper Penobscot Bay to freeze up. Unlike freshwater, which freezes at 32 degrees, seawater needs to be 28.4 degrees before it will freeze.
Sean Birkel, the new Maine State Climatologist and an assistant professor with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, said that upper Penobscot Bay used to freeze once or twice a decade during the 1800s and until the early years of the 20th century.
One notable and long-lasting cold snap in 1915 caused the bay to freeze up as far south as Rockland and as far east as Deer Isle, a distance of 20 miles as the crow flies — but 80 miles by road.
“It cut off all trade, mail, everything, for about a month,” Megan Pinette, the director of the Belfast Historical Society & Museum, said. “The ice was 15 inches thick. They couldn’t even get the ice breakers through. It blew out the engine.”
Birkel said the icy isolation was hard on islanders, and even mainlanders who lived in remote locations, who were accustomed to having easy access to trade via ship.
“In years in which the bay froze over, it posed particular challenges,” he said.
The first time someone drove across the frozen bay was on Washington’s Birthday in 1918, when Captain Albert Gray traveled from Harborside to Belfast in his Ford Pathfinder. A newspaper account from the time said that Gray and his companions cut a hole in the ice every now and again to see how thick it was.
“After finding ten to 14 inches of good ice, we opened her up and let her go for Turtle Head Islesboro, and then to the Belfast Bay,” Gray was quoted in the Bangor Daily News. “We did a little more scouting and found the ice six inches thick. Then it was ‘plain sailing and no dust’ to Belfast. There were no traffic cops and no speed limit, and it was one joy ride in.”
After that adventure, driving across the frozen expanse of the bay became commonplace that winter, with people hauling grain and provisions and making the 12-mile journey in about half an hour.
Barbara Dyer, a 90-year-old Camden historian from Camden, said that as a teenager in 1916 or so, her father took advantage of the deep freeze that turned open water into ice.
“He lived on Islesboro, and he walked on the ice from Islesboro to Belfast and from Islesboro to Camden,” she said. “I suppose he had places to go and he wanted to get there.”
The bay has iced over in more recent years, too. In 1934, when 20 of 31 days in January had temperatures no higher than zero degrees, the ambient temperature dipped as low as 38 below zero, Pinette said. One enterprising auto mechanic drove cars over to Islesboro and then sold them to the islanders.
Captain Richard Spear of Rockland, who is 93, said he remembers that big freeze well.
“It froze all the way across the Vinalhaven,” he said. “Friends of mine went [on the ice] outside Owls Head. The ice was going up and down [as the ocean moved underneath.] It doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to do.”
Mainers were surprised in February 1971 when a Coast Guard helicopter found that Penobscot Bay was “frozen 100 percent from the mouth of the Penobscot River to a line from Rockland to North Haven,” the BDN reported. At that time, Coast Guard vessels were summoned to free coastal tankers, tugboats and fishing boats trapped in the ice.
Dyer recalled that February watching a lobsterman use a little Yankee ingenuity to check on his boat, which was frozen in Camden’s inner harbor.
“He took a skiff, put his knee in it, and pushed out with his foot on the ice,” she said. “So if he went through he would get in the skiff, but he didn’t go through. He got out and checked his boat.”
Since then, there have been no major freeze-ups in the bay. So what happened?
“In general, for the bay to freeze over, there has to be cold overlying air,” Birkel said.
Maine’s average annual temperatures have increased by three degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, he said. In the late 1800s, the weather around Bangor was as cold as winters are now in Caribou.
A number of factors contribute to the rising temperatures, he said, including natural factors, such as solar activity and volcanic activity, and man-made factors, including increased greenhouse gases.
“The things we put into the atmosphere have an impact,” Birkel said. “It’s a pretty complex picture.”
The warming ocean surface temperatures in the North Atlantic have led to more evaporation and helped create the unusually large amount of snowfall this year in New England, he said. But it hasn’t been cold enough long enough to freeze Penobscot Bay.
“The spatial distribution of weather has shifted north,” Birkel said. “If you want to experience old-school winters, just drive up to Caribou.”