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15 January 2009: Lake Champlain Sea Smoke, Steam Devils, and Waterspouts
Exotic Whirls in Arctic Air
Overview | Images | Definitions | Weather Conditions | Historical Arctic Waterspouts
V. Historical Arctic Waterspouts

While the observance of winter waterspouts is relatively rare on any water body, there was one other notable occurrence on Lake Champlain back on February 12, 1954. The weather on this date was very similar to that of this past January 15th, in which strong arctic high pressure was building southward into the eastern half of the country and moderate northerly surface winds were observed in the Champlain Valley (see Figures V-1 and V-2). One notable difference between the two cases was that north winds were gusting up to 27 mph at Burlington during the 1954 case, while winds were only about 5 mph from the north-northeast during the 2009 case. On this day the local weather observer in downtown Burlington noted:

"Scattered clouds at 800 feet, scattered clouds at 1500 feet, barometer 1025.3 mb., temperature -8°F, dew point -21°F, wind north at 18 mph, gusts to 27 mph. Series of funnel-shaped clouds over Lake Champlain mostly extending from clouds to surface and moving from north to south. Funnels appear to be small tornadoes forming then moving southward a few hundred yards, dissipating, then new ones forming at the north end of cloud cover just west of station."

- excerpt from Weatherwise, April 1955

Daily Weather MapSteam Devil
Figures V-1 and V-2. Daily Weather Maps from 130 AM EST on the morning of February 12, 1954 showing cold arctic high pressure (centered across the northern plains) building southward into the eastern half of the country. Note the northerly gradient wind across the Champlain Valley.

With a surface air temperature of -8°F and the lake in the vicinity of Burlington unfrozen at the time of observance, the temperature difference between water and air was quite large and would certainly allow the lake to steam heavily. Given steep low level lapse rates and localized convergence over the lake, conditions were favorable for the formation of winter waterspouts. In addition to the case noted above, winter waterspouts (or snowspouts) have also been observed in other parts of the world, including Antarctica, Scandinavia, and Canada. In the latter case, a large spout was observed just offshore of Whitby, Ontario over Lake Ontario on January 26, 1994 (see Figure V-3 below). In this instance the spout was considerably larger, having a well-defined column extending upward into the cloud base. In the picture, you can clearly see the lake steaming along with the convective parent cloud elements indicative of an unstable lower atmosphere.
Interestingly the ambient low level flow was westerly (as opposed to northerly) on this day, or along the long axis of the lake. There has been some suggestion that the formation of spouts is more likely if winds align down long lakes such as Ontario and Champlain when low-level convergence is enhanced. However, with only a limited number of cases identified, further study is needed on this topic.
Figure V-3. Photo of large winter waterspout off Whitby, Ontario on January 26, 1994. (Source: Environment Canada, non-commercial use only)

Another old, but well documented case occurred offshore of Buffalo, NY back on February 11, 1907. An excerpt from the official Weather Bureau forecaster stated:

"The cloud had all the characteristics of a well-defined tornado funnel, or waterspout, appearing to be from 30 to 50 feet in diameter at the base and spread out to about 100 feet at the top. It retained its funnel shape as it advanced over the ice, licking up the snow as it went, until about a quarter of a mile off the south shore, when it began to waver and slowly vanish, breaking away at the bottom first."- from Monthly Weather Review, February 1907

Given the ephemeral and relatively weak nature of these phenomena, it could be surmised that an observer would have to be in the "right place at the right time" in most cases to make a visual confirmation. Thus the formation of winter waterspouts may be more common than current thinking suggests and additional research is needed on this topic to fully ascertain the physical and dynamical processes involved in their formation.
Overview | Images | Definitions | Weather Conditions | Historical Arctic Waterspouts
Figure V-1. Daily Weather Map for 130am EST on February 12, 1954.
Figure V-2. Zoomed Daily Weather Map over the Northeastern CONUS for 130am EST on February 12, 1954.

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