Around this time last year, Tugboat Margot was being commended for its efforts in breaking up ice and preventing jamming along the Mohawk River that could result in flooding in areas such as Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District.
This year, the tugboat has barely been out.
“It’s been a pretty mild winter and there has not been much of any ice to break, with the exception of last week,” said Shane Mahar, a spokesperson with the state Power Authority and Canal Corporation.
As part of a program under the direction of the state’s Canal Corporation and Power Authority, the tugboat moves along a portion of the river with a single mission: break the ice on the surface to potentially lessen ice jams and therefore flooding.
Mahar said the plummeting temperatures on Feb. 3, 4 and 5 allowed four to six inches of ice to accumulate on the river and the tugboat was deployed on Feb. 7 to break it up.
Since then? Nothing.
But, it’s not just the Mohawk River. Many bodies of water haven’t frozen over or have had inconsistent freezing this winter due to warm temperatures.
In the days leading up to one year since the ice jam event in 2022, the Capital Region broke records for warmth and, minus the bleak shrubbery, the Mohawk River looked like it hadn’t really seen a day of winter.
The National Weather Service station in Albany reported temperatures in the Capital Region Tuesday feeling like late March, climbing to the mid 40s and low 50s. On Wednesday, they said it felt like mid-April as some areas reported temperatures around 20 degrees above normal and Thursday the station reported out late April-like temperatures that were in the 50s and 60s – breaking records.
In Fulton County, which includes a part of the Great Sacandaga Lake, the sheriff’s department has issued a warning to stay off of all bodies of water.
“The ice is very unpredictable in thickness and with the warm weather there are areas of open water,” states a post on the department’s Facebook page. “Therefore it can be very dangerous in spots.”
Great Sacandaga is a popular spot for people to drive across in the winter on ATVs and to go ice fishing. However, this is not the year for it, according to Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino.
Instead, Giardino said the inconsistent temperatures have left sections of the lake uncovered and led to ice heaves on the lake. He said while one area may have eight to 10 inches of thickness others do not.
The warmer weather and inconsistent ice levels caused the cancellation of Saturday’s Walleye Challenge, an event that usually draws 2,000 participants and several thousand more guests to Fulton County.
Giardino said it was only canceled one other time in 15 years.
“This is an unusual year for us,” he said.
National Weather Service Hydrologist Britt Westerguard said the average winter temperature from Dec. 1 to Feb. 16 was above freezing at an average of 32.2 degrees.
In 2022, the average temperature for the same time period was 27.5 degrees and, in 2018, the year Westerguard recalls one of the most significant ice jamming and ice accumulations seasons, it was 24.7.
“You know 32 is freezing so, to me, that was the highlight right there that our average temperature has been above freezing through this winter, which is really amazing,” she said.
While upcoming days look like they may be trending back toward colder temperatures, it’s unlikely to cause any major ice accumulation, according to Westerguard.
She said the sun is also warmer this time of year and it is out more.
“The days are getting longer, so that also leaves us with less nighttime,” she said. “Nighttime is when we get the really good ice build up, so going forward it’s going to be very, very difficult to get anything close to that.”
Union College geology professor John Garver said winters have generally been getting much warmer over the years.
“On occasion, they’re getting very cold when we get these polar vortexes,” he said. “That’s one of the things that we really keep an eye on is are we getting these breakouts where we get these really cold areas but in general things are definitely getting warm.”
He also said while they have been getting warmer and there may be less ice jams in the future, the potential for flooding, particularly in flood plains such as the Stockade, is still not totally out of the question.
“The flood hazard in this area may be shifting in a fundamental way, away from ice-related events to those in the summer and fall driven by extreme precipitation,” Garver said. “Thus, we still need to focus on building resiliency into our homes and businesses that are adjacent to the Mohawk and other tributaries.”
Specifically for the Stockade, Garver said plans to move homes to higher elevations is still the best option when it comes to tackling the flood hazard posed by the Mohawk River.