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What Would the Niagara River Look Like Without an Ice Boom?

Article By Nate Drag, Great Lakes United:

As my dog and I walked on Squaw Island on a chilly afternoon last month, I was able to get an up close look at the Niagara River. At that spot, nearly twenty percent of the world’s fresh surface water flows from the four upper Great Lakes, funnels together and eventually flow over the Falls and than onto Lake Ontario. With the significance of this location in mind, I considered the consequences of clogging up the point where Lake Erie meets the Niagara River with a man-made ice boom.

Last month, Great Lakes United featured a post exploring the current presence and future of the Niagara River Ice Boom. As hoped, the post stirred conversations and reflections in many people. One man in particular has been thinking about the impact of the Ice Boom for over ten years. Joe Barrett, the creator and advocate of the “Ice Boom Theory” had plenty to tell me about his ideas on the Boom, which gave me an opportunity to consider our role as a community within this remarkable Great Lakes bioregion.

The Ice Boom was designed and installed in the early 1960’s to prevent large chunks of ice flowing in the River from clogging up the water intakes for the hydroelectric facilities in Niagara Falls. Despite operating for decades prior to the ice boom, the demand for increased power production deemed early efforts, such as tugboat removal of ice chunks, as too inefficient. For Barrett, the design and function of the Ice Boom straddle the line of arrogance and ignorance. “Disrupting two entire Great Lakes and the Niagara Rivers ecosystem to protect two intake tunnels has to be the biggest example of overkill since a pyramid was built to bury a king,” states Barrett. Human modification of the Niagara River, however, does not begin or end with the Ice Boom. Beginning with the diversions of water for hydro power, which in turn severely affects the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls, to the ‘shutting off’ of the Falls themselves in the late 60’s, American and Canadian efforts to reshape, control, and conquer the Niagara River is nothing new. Is the Ice Boom just another example of this hubris?
If the Ice Boom is not necessary, or even damaging as Barrett claims, what negative consequences have the ecosystems and communities along the River suffered? I asked Barrett about the role ice chunks might play in shoreline replenishment or erosion. “While walking along a stream one spring, I could hear a low rumbling sound but was unable to identify it. It grew louder and seemed to surround me. Finally, around the bend came a wall of ice chunks that looked like a horizontal avalanche. An ice dam had formed and then broken up stream from where I was. What I heard was the ice grinding on the bottom of the streambed.  It came at me and I scrambled up the bank. Huge chunks of ice were pushed up on the shoreline rather evenly dispersed. It was the most amazing sight. The ice chunks were heavily embedded with gravel and sediment. The lighter organic matter was swept along in the water.  I could see that when that ice melted it would leave the solids up on the banks.  And this has been going on for thousands of years.”

Barrett claims, the increased rates of erosion on Strawberry and Grand Islands are due to the lack of ice naturally replenishing gravel and sediment. “There are newly forming sand and gravel bars that extend hundreds of feet outward and downstream. That is Grand Island washing away. There is no more pushing back action by the ice. By boat, the three must see-it to believe-it areas are all around Strawberry Island, particularly down stream from it.”


Barrett also feels that the accelerated erosion of these islands is impacting the aquatic species of the River, specifically spawning areas. Barrett describes the sight of many shorelines along the Niagara. “They are covered with dead weeds and silt, unusable to any life forms.  Just past the Holiday Inn (on Grand Island) and for hundreds of yards beyond Burnt Ship creek, the entire current spawning flats are buried in 2 feet of ooze. The shoreline has receded and the beach is gone.  Everywhere along the shoreline, unless there is an artificial retaining wall, the devastation is undeniable.”
Barrett’s concepts and ideas in the Ice Boom Theory are intriguing. But are they correct? Is there any peer reviewed scientific literature or research testing these ideas developed by this citizen scientist? At the current time, this may be Barrett’s biggest challenge. Barrett has contacted scientists and professionals in the field but has been frustrated by the lack of response. With the abundance of institutions of higher education in the Buffalo area, I can’t think of a better project for undergraduate or grad students to explore. Perhaps alternative methods of research and evaluation should also be used to examine topics that have been previously reserved for natural and physical scientists. If, for example, there happen to be a large number of other individuals that have witnessed the same changes in the Niagara River in their lifetimes of living on, fishing, and observing the River, shouldn’t the cumulative impact of these accounts also hold weight?
While the jury still remains out on Joe Barrett’s Ice Boom Theory, and a winter walk along the Niagara River in Buffalo remains largely free of ice, the process of re-evaluating our human impact on unique ecosystems of Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Niagara River is always a worth while endeavor. Human beings have had an impact on the natural surroundings since the beginning of our existence but time has given us experience and wisdom. It has been nearly 25 years since the last major ecological and economic impact studies on the Ice Boom were done. Has the accumulated knowledge from that time period given us motive to rethink the necessity of such alterations? Has Joe Barrett’s Ice Boom Theory, regardless of its validity, brought attention to an issue affecting community that is long overdue for re-evaluation?

For more on Joe Barrett’s Ice Boom Theory, visit his website at the

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