This drone shot of Westbrook’s 2010 ice disk taken by city Communications Manager Tina Radell was featured as National Geographic’s “photo of the day,” and used in their coverage of the disk. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK— A year ago, Westbrook made global headlines when a large, rotating ice disk appeared on the Presumpscot River. This year, the ice disk is still spinning in the minds of locals, especially business owners, who are wondering if it will return.

The 100-yard-wide circular ice floe was first on the river surface Jan. 14, 2019. Over its 3-week lifespan, it drew thousands of curious spectators, caused a spike in local business, was a $19 million godsend for city marketing and economic development officials and was featured on Good Morning America and in the Washington Post, among many other media outlets.

Will there ever be another?

There’s no way to know, according to Sean Smith, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Earth and Climate Sciences and the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. It’s especially hard to speculate without active data on the temperature of that portion of the river, he said.

“They are rare. I remember it was a new phenomenon for me. I hadn’t looked into it before that event last year. There is actually a lot that factors into it,” said Smith, who has focused much of his research on rivers.

Temperature and river shape are major factors in ice disk formation. The disk and the spinning are both created by a gradient in temperatures from the surface to the bottom of the river. Colder water sinks to the bottom of the river, creating a vortex effect, which causes the ice forming at the surface a disk shape and spin.

“Areas with river bends can get current flows that can be a driver for disks as well. Vortices of downward motion from top to bottom create the disk (the cold water sinking,) and the bend in the river may help the water keep spinning the disk,” Smith said.

So there’s a chance one will form, even with a change in water level caused by the partial removal of the Saccarappa Dam.

“There are other portions of the river with almost rapids similar to those created by the removal, so that may not play so much a role. It would have to be a larger dam, something like hundreds of feet, to really make that big of a difference in the water temperature. I really can’t say if it will happen again,” Smith said.

Chris Horvat, a polar oceanographer with Brown University who installed a live feed of the disk, said everyone should keep on the lookout.

“It is entirely possible this happens more than we think, but not to the near-perfect degree it did in 2019. We’ll have to keep watching.”

Ice disks, although none matching the popularity of Westbrook’s, have been reported elsewhere in Maine and the country.

Tom Minervino, co-owner of Legends Rest Taproom off Main Street, said he thinks the city’s ice disk should be celebrated on its first anniversary.

“We are actually thinking about having a ‘remember the Ice Disk’ party as a fun thing for the end of January,” Minervino said.

Legends doubled its sales the week of the ice disk, Minervino said.

People came from near and far to view the ice disk in the Presumpscot River. File photo

“It was completely unexpected. We had people waiting in the hallway to get tables. People drove all the way up from Rhode Island, it was all out of state license plates in the parking lot,” he said.

“People are still talking about it, checking in at the river to see if it formed again,” he said.

Other businesses, some adding ice-disk themed items to their offerings, had a boom in business as well.

“I remember we were really busy, packed during the ice disk,” said Westbrook House of Pizza cook Kyle Howarth. “We had a special menu item actually, the ‘ice disk special’ and people really loved that, it did well. It was an alfredo, ham, chicken garlic and red onion pizza.”

Legends Rest featured an “Ice Disk Cosmo,” which had a lime slice floating on the top of the drink. Roots Cafe quickly sold out of its special Swiss meringue chocolate ganache cupcake with a sugar cookie disk and white buttercream frosting, said barista Ashley Miner.

Some businesses tied the disk into sales promotions. Continuum for Creativity, 863 Main St., which offered a 30 percent “disc-count” on paintings and played “disc-o” music at its Ice Disk Celebration Jan. 18. Pumpkin Seed Designs, 917 Main St., placed a 10 percent discount on circular items Jan. 18-19.

“We were out there for three days with the food truck, the average day we made like $450 in two to four hours, slinging coffee and hot chocolate,”  said Joe Salisbury said, co-owner of Daily Grind. “Our coffee shop had people all over the place from different parts of the country. It was a big boom.”

A typical day with the now-defunct Daily Grind food truck was twice the length at eight hours, pulling in the same amount of money.

Chris Horvat, a polar oceanographer with Brown University who installed a live feed of the disk, said he was drawn to it “immediately.”

“To me, I saw something that looked very similar to the floes I study in the Arctic,” Horvat said.

According to Economic Development Coordinator Daniel Stevenson, the media coverage the ice disk brought would have cost the city over $19 million if it had paid for advertising space in all the outlets it was featured in.

“I travel a lot, and when I am out and people ask where I am from and I tell them, I often hear ‘oh, that’s the ice disk place.’ It put us on the map. You can’t even pay for that kind of exposure” Stevenson said.

Eventually, though, the disk melted and was nearly entirely gone by Feb. 8.

“People are still asking about it, if another one will form or asking where it was,” Salisbury said.

“We often joke now that if an ice disk doesn’t appear again, we might have to go cut one out of the ice,” he said.

A drone shot of the ice disk with the New Jersey man, in yellow, bottom right, on it, attempting to cut it. “He is tiny compared to the ice disk,” City Communications Manager Tina Radel said.

 

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