Be Brief: The Lake-Sky Effect

Ice caps on Lake Superior.
Ice caps on Lake Superior.
Icebergs on the shoreline of Lake Superior at McLain State Park.
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Intensely cold weather can freeze over Lake Superior and cause lake-effect snow to drop off... but usually not for long.

The sky is a land of mystique beauty and grandeur of wonders that has long fascinated many. You may have noticed the increased sunshine over the mostly frozen Lake Superior recently. February and occasionally March are typically associated with gray skies and continued lake-effect snow, but extended cold temperatures in February allowed large portions of western Lake Superior to freeze—a somewhat rare occurrence. 

The Lake Superior “lake-effect snow machine” relies on cold air interacting with open water to supply heat and moisture for cloud development, so recent paltry snowfall totals can be blamed on the extensive lake ice coverage. Did the lake-effect snow machine completely shut off? Not entirely. Even small openings in the lake ice can produce clouds and snow, although snowfall is less intense and more sporadic. High-resolution satellite imagery is used to locate lake ice openings and possible regions where lake-effect snow may form under extensive lake ice coverage conditions.

Michigan Tech researcher Mark Kulie, assistant professor in Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences studies lake-effect snow using multiple tools, including specialized research radars and high-speed cameras that count the snowflake population, measure snowflake size and calculate how fast snowflakes fall in the air. These observations will improve quantitative snowfall estimates from satellite instruments that constantly monitor the Earth. Are we upset with the recent lake-effect snow machine interruption? Slightly. Nevertheless, the lake-effect snow machine will return, and our instruments will be ready.

ice fishing huts on white ice under a blue sky with clouds
 More ice means less lake-effect snow on Lake Superior. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

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