Freeze frame: Webcam keeps wary watch on ice jams along Mohawk River

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On a frigid weekday morning, an ice floe slinked its way along the lower Mohawk River, between Freeman’s Bridge and Lock 8. This stretch of river is especially vulnerable to ice jams, which can cause severe flooding.

In the past, emergency personnel used to trek down to the river to make manual observations of the jams to determine if evacuations of nearby neighborhoods were needed. This was challenging at night, when temperatures dropped to dangerous levels and the ice jams were difficult to see.

But on this particular morning, ice watchers didn’t need to stare down the zero degree temperature and whipping winds that laced the riverbank to get a picture of what was happening on the water.

Instead, a camera positioned in the upper corner of the College’s boat house in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood gave emergency management, researchers and the general public a real-time view of the ice movement. Every few seconds, the “jam cam” snapped images that could be seen immediately on the web.

The camera is part of a new ice jam monitoring system recently installed along the lower Mohawk. A unique collaboration between the U.S. Geological Society, the New York Power Authority, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Brookfield Renewable Power and Union, the system also includes gauges that precisely measure river levels to determine how much is due to ice.

John Garver, professor of geology, has studied ice jams for years. He was instrumental in helping create the new monitoring system.

“This is pretty amazing,” Garver said recently as he gingerly navigated the snow-covered slope of the riverbank to check on the system. “It will really change the way we do things.”

Users can sign up for text or email alerts if a problem is detected. In the first week of operation the camera served more than 6,500 real-time images.

Ice jams occur when the frozen river begins to thaw. When a rise in the water level or a thaw breaks the ice into large chunks, these chunks can become jammed, resulting in severe flooding.

Besides being used by emergency managers for timely information to manage resources if there is a threat of flooding, Garver expects the system to be extremely helpful to researchers.

One of the worst ice jams in the area occurred in January 1996. A mid-winter thaw, accompanied by heavy rains and rapid snowmelt, resulted in severe flooding in the Stockade and parts of the Schoharie Valley along the Schoharie River, the main tributary to the Mohawk River.

Students in Garver’s Natural Disasters class have measured scars of trees along the riverbank as part of a forensic analysis of the jam, to determine where and why it occurred.

The new system should give researchers a better understanding of how ice jams form and the movement of ice flows, Garver said.

“Installation of this system marks a new chapter in the relationship of the community to ice jams,” Garver said.

To view the jam cam, click here.