When it gets bitterly cold during the winter, dramatic headlines about Niagara Falls start to flow from news outlets outside the area.
“The usually rushing waters at Niagara Falls have frozen …” CNN declared in a headline on its website on Tuesday.
Except they hadn’t.
And CNN wasn’t alone.
“Extreme temperatures have frozen parts of Niagara Falls,” read the headline from a video posted by Time Magazine.
“It’s so cold, parts of Niagara Falls have frozen like a scene from a Disney movie,” USA Today exclaimed.
To which we would say: Let it go.
The natural wonder of Niagara Falls regularly becomes an icy spectacle when temperatures plunge to frigid depths, like they have in recent days. But the falls don’t turn to ice and stop flowing.
That’s because the water in the Niagara River – which pours over a precipice with a drop as high as 176 feet, building up speed as it roars through the rapids just before the brink – is flowing water. And there's a lot of it.
"Something moving as fast as the falls is extremely difficult to freeze," said Stuart M. Evans, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University at Buffalo.
Though the cold air does remove energy from the river water, having a mass of frigid air on top of a body of water doesn't necessarily freeze the entire body of water.
What's frozen is slow-moving or still water, and the portion of the river below the falls that appears to be frozen on the surface is still flowing underneath.
If the falls were actually frozen, the water in the river would back up, possibly causing flooding. (Think back to March 30, 1848.)
"The water would have to go somewhere," Evans said.
At its peak in the summer and fall, more than 700,000 gallons of water flow over the falls every second, according to authorities. That amount decreases in winter when more water is channeled to the power plants on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border to generate hydroelectric power.
The frozen scene surrounding the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe falls is created by the mist coming off the falls, which is what actually freezes. That mist deposits a shimmering glaze of ice over trees, railings and the rest of what surrounds the falls. It’s beautiful to see and is something tourism officials hope to capitalize on by marketing the “frozen” falls to potential visitors.
Niagara Falls has its own permanent spray cloud and when the temperature gets below freezing, the cloud is essentially freezing rain, Evans said.
While the results can be dramatic, it's hard to imagine the falls fully freezing, he said.
"Even if it stays cold for a very long time, the falls are going to be extremely difficult to freeze," Evans said.
And if you move past the headlines and look at the photos and video of the falls that are frozen, you can clearly see and hear the water moving over the falls.
Evans noted it was a little bit strange to have to explain how water that was obviously still flowing over the falls wasn't actually frozen.
The headlines about the "frozen" falls got picked up across the country, from L.A. to Tuscon to Kansas City.
But you can leave it to our friends just across the border in Canada to take a more level-headed approach.
In a departure from their American colleagues, CBC News put it this way in a January 2018 headline: “Why Niagara Falls isn’t frozen and will likely never freeze.”
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