Yes, it has been cold

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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It’s been cold, no denying it. Two weeks ago, early morning temperatures were hovering just above zero. That’s excess cold to my old bones.

There was a lot of ice in the Pagan River and significant ice flows even in the James River. We hadn’t seen those for a number of years.

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In our youth, we listened to the “old timers” tell of the coldest winters they remembered, and their tales were plentiful.

Now that we are the old timers, we get asked things like, when was the last time the James River froze over — really froze over?

Easy. It was 1977. The temperature in January of that year stayed below freezing for several weeks. The Chesapeake Bay froze over north of Annapolis, and rivers, including the James, were virtually impassable to shipping.

It is likely that 1917-18 was a bit colder. The old timers of my youth recalled an intrepid local soul who drove a Model T across the James River during that freeze. That was a decade before the James River Bridge was built, so if the story is true — and I have heard it all my life — then that was clearly the first automobile to cross the river under its own power.

But 1977 is the year we remember, though not fondly.

The Virginia Department of Transportation shut down the ferry system at Scotland Wharf for more than a week during the 1977 freeze, and commuters traveling from Surry to Williamsburg had to make a much longer trek through Isle of Wight and over the James River Bridge or cross the River at Jordan’s Point in Prince George.

It was also during that time that the price of oil went sky high and the stuff became scarce. The late Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. imposed mandatory conservation measures and at one point, what was then Portsmouth Gas Company enforced a government mandate to cut natural gas use to a fraction of what was normal.

The Coast Guard used large buoy tenders that were equipped with reinforced ice breaker bows to open paths up the James, Potomac and other rivers along the Chesapeake, replacing buoys which had been dragged off station and accompanying barges full of fuel oil which was desperately needed in many communities.

The soil froze deeply and burst public as well as private water lines. A cast iron pipe across the Cypress Creek bridge froze and 20 sections broke apart and fell into the creek. It took weeks to repair it.

That was the year, many will recall, when a lot of us learned about the jet stream. It dipped to the Gulf of Mexico and stayed there for weeks, pumping massive doses of Arctic air into much of the U.S., particularly the Mississippi basin and Atlantic Coast states.

Now, we are learning more about abnormal weather. As Ryan Kushner reports this week, the extraordinarily cold weather throughout much of the country this winter is actually related to global warming. As the Artic region warms up and its ice cover continues to melt, which is happening each year, the contrast between polar and temperate regions lessens. The jet stream, which normally keeps cold weather up north, slows down as a result of the warmer Polar temperatures, and that allows the cold air to spread over a larger area.

Those who believe that global warming, as the President once said, is a Chinese-originated myth, won’t believe the effect that it is having on us, of course. They will look at the recent cold spell as further evidence that this global warming is indeed just a hoax.

Meanwhile, those who believe science and those who don’t can all enjoy warmer temperatures while they last.