What’s icy, metal and two miles long? A Great Lakes ice boom

Ice Boom Installation, delivery of Boom strings to harbor break wall from storage area. December 7, 2015. Photographer: Paul Pasquarello.

Ice Boom Installation, delivery of Boom strings to harbor break wall from storage area. December 7, 2015. Photographer: Paul Pasquarello.

The deep freeze has arrived in Great Lakes states and that means one thing: It’s time for the Lake Erie/Niagara River Ice Boom.

“The ice boom is meant to help Mother Nature do its job and create a stable ice jam at the mouth of the Niagara River,” said Lou Paonessa , communications director for the New York Power Authority.

The ice boom consists of 22 spans of large steel pontoons that stretch about two miles across the lake, from Buffalo, N.Y., to the shores of Fort Erie, Ontario. The power authority and Ontario Power Generation are responsible for its annual installation and removal.

“What happens is those pontoons are then anchored to the bottom of the lake floor and it helps Mother Nature form that stable ice cover. It will form no matter what, but this helps it to form sooner,” Paonessa said. “And what that does is it prevents a lot of ice flows from coming down the Niagara River jamming intakes which are used for collecting water for power production.”

Hydro-electric companies in the U.S. and Canada depend on the constant flow of the Niagara River to provide electricity for millions of residents on both sides of the border.

About 4,000 megawatts of electricity goes into two separate grids. In Canada, it’s distributed throughout Ontario. In New York, it’s distributed statewide, but also goes to six neighboring states: Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Peter Kowalski, operating manger at the Ontario Power Generation’s Niagara River Control Board said large-scale ice blockages could slow the flow of water and power generation.

“Without the ice boom, pans of ice would form on the lake and continue to flow out, creating issues for hydropower management downstream, issues for water management, the occurrence of blockages in the river, ” he said. “So the ice boom really helps to mitigate all those kinds of things.”

Also, because Lake Erie is the shallowest of all the Great Lakes, it freezes quickly from end to end. Kowalski said about 90 percent of the lake is covered by ice in winter months.

Installation started Dec. 16 and can last for several days. When winter is over, ithe boom is usually removed in early April.