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Melting Beats Coast Guard to Kennebec River Ice

The Coast Guard Cutter Bridle breaks ice on the Penobscot River in Maine March 17, 2015. Operation renewable energy for Northeast Winters. (U.S. Coast Guard/CPO Marc Moore)
The Coast Guard Cutter Bridle breaks ice on the Penobscot River in Maine March 17, 2015. Operation renewable energy for Northeast Winters. (U.S. Coast Guard/CPO Marc Moore)

BATH, Maine -- Crews assigned to the Coast Guard cutters Tackle, Shackle and Bridle figured the mild Maine winter would have them breaking Kennebec River ice a month earlier than normal.

But following a quick trip up the lower Kennebec River on Friday, the cutters headed back to their homeports after finding no ice to break. The river's early ice-out this year is the earliest anyone at Coast Guard Sector Northern New England in South Portland can remember and at least a month before a typical year.

"It's never been the last week of February," Lt. David Borbeau, chief of the Waterways Management Division for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, said Monday. "There's always ice into March, as far as the guys around here can remember. For it to be done and over with this early is certainly unusual."

"There's no ice left to break," Borbeau said Monday. "The rain we received Wednesday and Thursday of last week pretty much broke it out."

Aside from some floating drift ice, the lower Kennebec was completely open Friday morning, when the Tackle and Shackle motored upriver as far as Gardiner.

With the Maine Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Weather Service and local emergency managers, the Coast Guard monitors flood conditions on the Kennebec. Typically in late March or early April, the Coast Guard sends icebreakers up the river to Gardiner to clear out any jams, reducing the threat of spring flooding.

Two days after an ice jam caused the Kennebec to flood its banks in Augusta on Feb. 17, the Coast Guard warned ice fishermen to remove their shacks, cautioning that the Kennebec River Spring Breakout, as it is known, could happen early this year.

But after Friday's trip to Gardiner, the breakout was canceled altogether, although icebreakers will remain available if the river refreezes, Borbeau said.

Coast Guard cutters broke ice in the Penobscot River on several days in January and early February, traveling north of the Cianbro plant in Brewer and to the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge several times, Borbeau said. Unless a sustained stretch of subfreezing weather hits Maine, the Coast Guard's river ice work is done for this year, he said.

In stark contrast to last winter, when the Coast Guard received 66 requests for icebreakers, this year they've received none.

That's no surprise to meteorologist Chris Kimble at the National Weather Service in Gray, who said Monday afternoon that the 2015-2016 winter could be the second-warmest on record in Portland.

The warmest winter on record, in 1981, saw an average temperature of 32.3 degrees, according to Kimble. The second-warmest, in 2001-2002, was 31.3 degrees.

The NWS deems that winter ends at midnight Tuesday, and Monday's high in Portland was 59 degrees, with a low of 25.

"According to my calculations, unless it gets colder than that before midnight, this would be the second warmest," Kimble said.

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