Not an Iceberg but an Ice Floe. And Yes, This Winter has been Memorable.
Many of you have no doubt seen the dramatic photos, recently posted online, of large chunks of ice that washed up on the shores if Cape Cod Bay in Wellfleet a couple of weeks ago. Some of the chunks were as tall as human beings and stretched out for several hundred yards into the Bay. The Washington Post, which should have known better, called them “ice-bergs.” What they actually were, of course, were large ice-floes. Icebergs are large chunks of freshwater ice and compressed snow that break off glaciers and float southward on the Labrador Current, though I have never heard of any that made it this far south. Ice-floes, on the other hand, are chunks of frozen salt-water, also called pack-ice.
Eric Fisher, the chief meteorologist at Boston’s WBZ-TV, called these ice floes a “once in a generation event,” which is a bit of a hyperbole. Back in the 1970s such massive accumulations of pack ice in the bay were a common winter occurrence, though it’s true they’ve been much less frequent in recent decades, another indication of global warming.
But however I might quibble with the words used to describe them, these ice floes were unquestionably impressive – as much in their going as in their arrival. In early March winter finally began to relax its extended grip on our shores. The salt marshes and the smaller estuaries unlocked to the point where geese and other water-fowl, hard pressed by the long freeze, could begin feeding again. Then a week of warming weather, high tides, and some easterly winds began to tear apart the mantle of ice that had covered our bay shores for the past four or five weeks. Almost overnight the flats at low tide became a scene of massive desolation scattered with enormous stranded floes of ice. It looked like the ruins of a thousand Stonehenges: megaliths of a race of giants that had withdrawn and vanished with the tides. I walked among them and peered into their dark, cave-like openings, dripping and shaggy with trapped clumps of uprooted marsh grass.
As it melted, the ice began to disgorge its dead: creek minnows and larger fish, half-thawed and drooping out of the soft, rotten, icy walls; the mashed and darkened bodies of black ducks and herring gulls, hidden for weeks in the dark crevices, now exhumed and open to view; and great mounds of oyster shells, scooped and swept into large depressions of the ice’s making, like bodies heaped into shallow graves.
But it is over. The ice is gone. There will be more cold spells, perhaps even another snowstorm or two – but it will never again be like this – not this winter.