Arctic phenomenon: Lake Superior Steam Devils

Call them "nature's stupid cold weather tricks."

Arctic air is not just cold, it triggers some interesting weather phenomenon you just don't see at some latitudes. Case in point?

Steam devils and Arctic sea smoke.

Check out the images sent to Updraft by Guy Sander from Saginaw, Minn. looking out over Lake Superior just after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

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Used with permission from Guy Sander.

Steam devils and arctic sea smoke occur with arctic air above relatively warmer water. Here's a great explanation on steam devils from the Burlington, Vermont National Weather Service.

A steam devil is similar in nature to a waterspout in arctic air. However, we might differentiate between a steam devil and waterspout by whether or not the condensation funnel is deep and strong enough to be attached to a convective cloud above. Deeper convective motions and vertical stretching extending from the water surface to the convective cloud base would generally result in a stronger, longer-lived feature (waterspout) as compared with a shallower, shorter-lived feature (steam devil). We might expect the vertical depth of a waterspout to be on the order of hundreds of meters, while the vertical extent of a steam devil is on the order of tens of meters.

Temperatures hovered near and below zero along Lake Superior this morning, while surface water temperatures in the big lake are in the mid-30s.

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The relatively warmer water gives up heat to the frigid air mass. Check out this video, and you can clearly see the transfer of energy and moisture from the big lake into the Arctic air mass above. Watch as Arctic sea smoke rises and mini-spinning vorticies attempt to evolve into steam devils.

If you've ever wondered how the lake-effect snow process is fed, this video provides some insight as to how heat and moisture is sucked from the Great Lakes and eventually transferred into lake effect snow plumes.

The Burlington Vermont NWS elaborates on arctic sea smoke.

Arctic Sea Smoke or Steam Fog develops when very cold (arctic) air moves across relatively warm, open water. Strong upward fluxes of latent heat from the water surface result in water vapor quickly condensing as it is mixed and cooled with the adjacent cold air. Since the air adjacent to the water surface is also convectively unstable, the arctic sea smoke or steam fog will be seen rising in turbulent plumes associated with shallow convective overturning of the very unstable air over the water (Lake Champlain in this case). Upon further upward mixing, the fog will eventually evaporate and dissipate in the dry arctic air, on the order of 10 meters above the water surface. As such, arctic sea smoke is a relatively shallow phenomenon.

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Burlington, Vermont NWS

As we endure winter's chill it's nice to know we are treated to sights not seen in all parts of this amazing planet we call Earth.