Winter Waterspouts Over Lake Superior

Posted By Wolf Ridge Naturalist
December 21, 2016

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On December 13th, 2016, as we traveled down the hill towards Highway 61 with Wolf Ridge resident citizen scientist, Peter Harris, we noticed strange cloud formations over Lake Superior. There was a great mass of “sea smoke” rising off of the waters of the lake and, from that, columns of the “smoke” rising to meet the clouds above. We were looking at the formation of winter waterspouts!


The sea smoke and waterspouts observed were the result of a recent arctic air mass that moved into the area causing air temperatures to plummet at a much greater rate than the lake’s surface water temperatures. When this frigid air moves across a relatively warm, open body of water, like that of Lake Superior, fluxes of latent heat from the water surface results in water vapor quickly condensing and mixing into the cold air above, creating the sea smoke. When this happens and is combined with a source of low-level air rotation that can be stretched vertically and strengthened by a convective cloud updraft, a rotating column of air, or a waterspout, will form between the water and a cumuliform cloud above.


See a short video of winter waterspouts over Lake Superior


By Brooke Piepenburg, Erika LeMay, Jarrod Klopp

Information from the blog of Paul Huttner, chief meteorologist for Minnesota Public Radio, and the National Weather Service. Video by Jordan Deters.

See more photos by Guy Sander.