01/10/2014 12:13 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Hell May Have Frozen Over, but Niagara Falls Did Not

The tweet from the Ontario Newspaper Awards caught my attention on a frigid Wednesday night: RT@marthamaiingan: "@ChicagoPhotoSho: Niagara Falls has frozen over today."

It seemed like a credible enough source. The ONAs, as industry folk call them, are widely respected, and if you're going to re-tweet something as cool as a photo of a frozen Niagara Falls, they're as good a source as any. Which is exactly what I did. I posted it on my Facebook page, too.

Then I began to wonder -- how did The Review, the newspaper where I was a reporter for five years, cover it? What do their photos look like? How about the folks at The Niagara Gazette, on the U.S. side of the river? And how did the folks at the weekly Metroland paper cover this epic moment in time?

The answer? They didn't. And that's when the penny dropped.

The polar vortex (which will shove out selfie for the word/phrase of the year come December) did not cause Niagara Falls to freeze on January 8, 2014, as the Internet would have us all believe. Because Niagara Falls did not actually freeze. If it had, the local media would have blown up the Twitterverse with the news. Instead, their coverage of the deep freeze that engulfed Southern Ontario focused on the blizzard belting Buffalo and its impact on South Niagara, including a massive ice jam in the Niagara River and some poor little duckies frozen to the ice a few kilometres down the road.

The local Destination Marketing Organization would have chimed right in, eager to get people from Australia who are sick of the searing heat to cool off in our backyard for awhile. A "strike while the iron is hot but the Falls are cold" sort of marketing campaign.

But they didn't. In fact, the Niagara Parks Commission, which acts as a gatekeeper, marketing organization and commercial operator in Niagara Falls, offered this tweet around 2 p.m. January 9: "@NiagaraParks: While very chilly and strikingly beautiful right now, Niagara Falls is NOT completely frozen today."

It sure did look like it, though, even if the original photo to make the rounds early on Wednesday has been outed as an old one, taken in 2011.

Reuters photographer Aaron Harris quickly got more recent pix of the phenomenon, offering stunning gallery of semi-frozen images of Niagara Falls. So did Review photographer Mike DiBattista, who has a photo gallery of his own.

There is a sense of myth and mystery around Niagara Falls. Its power is majestic, which is why guys like Nik Wallenda wanted to walk over it and many people have tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to replicate Annie Taylor's trip over the Falls in a barrel back in 1901. That myth, majesty and mystery is what draws millions of visitors to Niagara Falls every year and is the main reason why people from all over the world have been posting, tweeting and re-blogging about a "frozen" Niagara Falls for the past 48 hours.

Whether the first photo posted online was intended hoax or a simple misunderstanding, the fact that Niagara Falls didn't actually freeze this week shouldn't deter people from marvelling at the spectacular icy images. It should encourage people to come and see for themselves what nearly 570,000 litres of water looks like when it crashes over the precipice each second, even if it is partially covered in ice and snow.

No doubt tourism operators are hopeful that this sudden spike in interest in will translate into a boost in hotel reservations this winter, a time when bookings often flow as slowly as the semi-frozen Falls. If they're smart, they'll pull these photos out again in the spring and use them to remind people how interested they were in visiting Niagara Falls only a few months before.

The tourism folks in Hell, Michigan (which is genius, BTW), will also no doubt try to capitalize on their own bit of unusual weather-related news from this week, when the pesky polar vortex caused another unlikely phenomenon to occur: Hell actually froze over.


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