Winter Wonders: Can waterfalls completely freeze over?

Weather Blog

Featured Image courtesy of John Kucko Digital

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — There are a lot of beautiful sights and wonders of nature found right here in Western New York, and some of those famous sights to see are waterfalls!

From summer to winter people from all over visit our local state parks and other sites to see these waterfalls in their full glory, but to see them during the winter is a whole different experience. As temperatures drop and the waters get cold enough, parts of these waterfalls will begin to freeze and form beautiful ice formations. Now the question begs itself, is it possible for these waterfalls to freeze over completely?

The short answer is yes, they can! All water does have the potential freeze. However, it depends on the size of the waterfall, the strength of the water flow, and temperature fluctuations of the area throughout the winter or cold season.

For an entire waterfall to freeze over requires the perfect environmental conditions, which isn’t always so easy to come by in a place that experiences such large fluctuations in temperatures. One year in particular during the arctic blast of 2015, we got as close as it gets to one of our larger waterfalls to be almost completely frozen over. You can see this in the featured image above courtesy of John Kucko.

Here’s how it works:

First, you need a prolonged period of below freezing air temperatures to cool the water, which means the winter is the best time for this to occur. The reason you need a lasting amount of sub-zero air is because it requires more energy, and time for water to react to changes in air temperature than land does due to specific heat differences.

Once the temperature of the water gets to below freezing where the water is still supercooled, (meaning it exists in a liquid state with below freezing temps), it can form what’s called frazil ice.

Fun Fact: This is why 32 degrees is referred to as the melting point and not the freezing point, since all water melts at 32 degrees, but not all water freezes at that point.

Frazil ice is important as this becomes the “anchor” that starts it all. This forms when the water gets cold enough where the water molecules clump closer and closer together until they stick. This frazil ice forms on the surface of supercooled water as a cluster of needle-like, loose ice crystals that can form plates in turbulent waters such as that of waterfalls.

Once this frazil ice clings together and flows over the edge of the falls, it can stick to nearby rocks on the overhang of the falls provided temperatures are cold enough. This serves as the anchor point for ice to continue to latch on, freeze, and continue to grow downwards towards the bottom of the falls.

Smaller scale waterfalls in cold climates have the best chances at freezing over larger scale waterfalls. For example, Niagara Falls is a waterfall that will likely never completely freeze over as it’s extremely difficult to given its size. Parts of it will freeze, but never the entire thing.

There are a ton of waterfalls to check out across the Western New York region and beyond all year round. Here are just a few:

High Falls in Rochester, Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls (Genesee River at Letchworth State Park), Taughannok Falls, Holley Canal Falls, Glen Falls, Niagara Falls, etc.

We’re approaching the time of year where larger spikes of temperature will make it nice enough to go outside, while still being able to capture the beauty of the frozen falls. BUT be sure to always practice caution when venturing out on anything covered in ice, especially when these temperature fluxes can make ice look more solid than it really is. These temperature spikes can also create lots of melting and runoff, which can help cause ice jams by the built up of meltwater and ice that exceeds the river basin’s capacity.

MORE⼁Icicles and ice dams wreak havoc on homes as snow melts

~Meteorologist Christine Gregory

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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