Thursday, February 5, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Golden Hill’s ice volcanoes

Brutally cold and snowy winters like this tend to make people question why they live so far north. Those who stay know that, despite their nastiness, all winters are interesting in their own right and that beauty can found in such harsh conditions.

Golden Hill State Park’s shoreline features numerous 
volcanoes like this one. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)
One of the neatest sights of the winter months is out in full force for the second year in a row after quite a few warmer winters that weren’t conducive to their development: The Niagara County shoreline is now home to countless ice volcanoes.

An ice volcano is not a true volcano since it’s not a geological phenomenon (some meteorologists wrongly call them cryovolcanoes, which is still a geological term). But, they are called volcanoes by laymen and scientists alike because there is no better way to describe what happens when the conditions are right and they are in their full fury.

When the waves come roaring in with heights in excess of 5 feet, they will go under ice sheets that have formed along the shore. The power of the waves will plow through a weak point in the ice – a hole or a crack – and spew through that spot.

Done repeatedly, that hole will grow in size and it is not uncommon to find blow holes up to 4 feet in diameter. Most become much smaller over time (and after subsequent freezes), but the waves still must seek the point of least resistance, so the water continues to break through the ice sheet in that spot in varying amounts of pressure and spray distance. It is not uncommon in a good wind to see eruptions reach 10 to 15 feet in height!

In a sustained storm, small conical mounds (over 5 feet in height) can appear over a day’s time because of this ... the spewing water creates its own mountains. Over days of good wave action, working ice volcanoes can make mountains up to 20 feet in height and they will continue to shoot water until the waves come to an end and the volcano becomes capped due to the lack of water exploding out in volume and consistency.

Ice volcanoes can be found anywhere along the Lake Ontario shore, but the best ones in Niagara County are to be found at Golden Hill State Park. That is because the shoreline there is somewhat protected by Thirty Mile Point which inhibits a great deal of the west wind and allows for a certain calmness which in turn allows substantial ice sheets to form. When the wind shifts to the north or northeast, that’s when the volcanoes will appear.

To see them in all of their glory, you will want to be there on the windiest, nastiest day possible, so prepare for the occasion — dress warmly and bring a face mask. You do not want to go on a calm day or one with a west or southwest wind as you will not see any eruptions (although you will still get to marvel at the size and shape of the volcanoes).

The best spot to see them is in the area near the boat launch, which is the entrance a quarter mile east of the main entrance to the park (where the campsites and lighthouse are) on Lower Lake Road in Somerset. There is a spacious parking lot at the boat launch (and there is no admission fee charged even in-season). If you look to the right of Golden Hill Creek you will see a mile-long ice sheet absolutely loaded with volcanoes of all shapes and sizes.

You can enjoy them while watching from the shore and or hiking a trail on the embankment that parallels the shore for a half mile.

Word of advice: DO NOT venture out onto the ice sheet to look at or climb the volcanoes or mountains. The areas around the volcanoes can be incredibly strong from the build-up of ice or they can be very weak (there’s a reason water is blowing through that area) and they can easily cave in and often do, just from their own weight.

Also, if you see some guys with guns do not be startled or call the police. Small game hunting is allowed at Golden Hill State Park in the winter months, so on any given weekend there may be rabbit hunters out there. They stick to the woods and brushy areas, so you are fine in you stay at the boat launch area.

So, the next time Mother Nature turns on us and you don’t mind taking the ride out to Somerset (which if any place could be considered “remote” in Niagara County it’s that beautiful town) and facing the elements head on, get out and enjoy the ice volcanoes. If you are there at the right time and under the right conditions, they can be pretty awesome ... and in the future you’ll be hoping for more nasty winters.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where there are gas volcanoes on the Erie Canal in the winter. But, that’s a column for another day. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 05 February 2015 East Niagara Post

No comments: