Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Ice Pillars - The Light Sabers of the Sky

The atmosphere is an amazing creation, and some of the things that go on up there are truly “out of this world”. One that I have been treated to only rarely is something right out of Star Wars. Everyone must be familiar with the light sabers that were part of Jedi Order, and that’s what I am reminded of when I see Ice Pillars in the sky. Click on the video below to get a better idea of how they look in real life. 

Ice pillars, also known as Light Pillars are another one of the amazing optical phenomena that occur in our atmosphere.  The are formed under very special conditions and therefore are quite rare. There are a few ingredients necessary for the formation of Ice Pillars.  You need very cold air temperatures, usually below 15°F, which allows for the formation of ice crystals, hexagonal plates or dendrites that are necessary for the reflection of light rays from the source. Those kinds of temperatures immediately eliminate most of the populated regions of the globe so that it’s a feature normally seen at the higher latitudes of both hemispheres on earth.  Those ice crystals, either fall gently down to the ground or float in the air as you would see in ice fog. In addition, because the crystals need to take on a certain flat configuration in the air and not be jostled about so they can reflect light rays properly, the air needs to be almost still. 

Now once you have all of these conditions in place, how in the world do the pillars of light form? That is where the optics of the atmosphere comes in. Light rays that come off a point source, most commonly street lights, are normally directed up into the sky in all directions. All ice crystals present in the atmosphere reflect the light from the source. But only those crystals that are aligned in a common vertical plane will direct the light towards the observer. If a person is lucky enough and is at the right angle looking back toward the light source, their eyes will see light rays that have been reflected off a column of those perfectly aligned ice crystals. The result is that the eye perceives a column of light above the light source. It is not a real column of light, rather an illusion created by the ice crystals reflecting that light. 

Different colored light sources will result in different colored columns in the air. I have seen red light pillars that came off runway lights at an airport as well as train yards. The pillars I saw in these photos came off sodium lamps and they have that eerie, soft yellow glow to them.  

Winter is an amazing season. So much of what we experience outdoors can seem other-worldly at times. From beautiful snowflakes to ice needles and rime ice, ribbon ice, ice pillars to the blanket of white that covers the ground, allows for us to ski, skate on frozen water, it truly is a magical season. Keep your eyes open and you can find some of these hidden gems if you take the time to look and explore. Enjoy!!   

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Grand Canyon - An Upside Down Hike Into a Summertime Oven

Figure 1: A view of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. The faint line in the middle of the image is the side-trail that leads out to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens Campground, which sits along the main Bright Angel Trail.

It’s one of the Wonders of the World and for anyone who has ever visited the Grand Canyon, there are really no adjectives that can adequately capture its immensity and raw beauty. Around 6 million visitors come to this National Park every year, second only to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, my home.   However, it is estimated that less than 5%, or 1 in 20 visitors ever set their foot below the Rim of the Canyon.

Figure 2: A hike from Rim to Base in the Grand Canyon is best done in the Spring or Fall and over 2 to 3 days. Hikers need to be prepared for such an arduous journey. That includes proper clothing, a good-fitting backpack, hiking poles and its very important to have the proper footwear. The most important item on any hike in the Grand Canyon however is water, and lots of it. That could be the difference between life and death.

I have been fortunate to hike down to the base of The Grand Canyon, to the Colorado River, twice in my life, the most recent hike just this past Spring. For anyone who is physically fit enough to attempt this hike, the rewards are truly amazing, with views that take your breath away. The hike gives one the sense of just how big and beautiful this wonder of nature really is.  However, there are a number of factors that make this hike a significant challenge for most people regardless of how physically fit you are and a very dangerous one for those who are not prepared for the arduous journey.

In this blog, I discuss the issues with the weather making the hike during the summer months, when most people visit the Canyon. There are separate issues that come into play in the other 3 seasons, mainly snow and ice on the trails but I will not cover that in this article. By the way, to learn all about the Grand Canyon, I have found the absolute best site is right from our own National Parks Service.   

The Upside-Down Hike

That “upside-down” nature of a Grand Canyon hike is the first factor in the challenge of attempting even a partial walk down into the Canyon. Most hikes usually start out low and end up higher than the start. Often, you are trying to get to a mountain top or some other landmark that offers a great view of the surroundings. When you hike “up” to a goal, most of your energy is expended in that uphill climb. If you tire out and do not feel you are able to go on too much farther, you can turn around and gravity will do the work to get you back down with far less energy as it took to get you up the mountain. In this case, you sort of know you can make it back because it won’t be as difficult as getting up to where you hiked.

In the Grand Canyon, the opposite is true.  The hike down into the Canyon can be very deceptive. You drop in elevation rapidly, and before you know it, you may be 1,000 ft. below where you started out. Visitors, many of whom are from far distant locations, may have no idea just how strenuous a hike it is to come back up out of the canyon after venturing down several hundred or even thousands of feet. In addition, many visitors are not prepared for a strenuous hike, along rock strewn trails that can easily twist an ankle or worse.  

The full hike to the base of the Canyon from the South Rim is usually done on one of two trails, either the South Kaibab Trail, or the Bright Angel Trail. Each has their own particular advantages and drawbacks. However, the distance you travel covers anywhere from 7 to over 9 miles one-way and the elevation change approaches a staggering 5,000 ft. 

By the way, before you ever start down into the Canyon, if you are not acclimated to the altitude, you already will feel out of breath, even after a short walk. That’s because there is only about 80% of the air at this altitude, of nearly 7,000 ft, compared to sea level. It already puts you behind the 8-ball if you are thinking about hiking.

Fig 3: Google Earth view of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the two main trails that lead down to the Base at the Colorado River. 

As noted on the U.S. Parks website “there are no easy trails into or out of the Grand Canyon. Over 250 people are rescued from the Canyon each year. Rangers respond to an average of 400 medical emergencies each year.”

When you combine the fact that millions of visitors travel to this remote high-desert location, unaware of the unique hiking conditions, let alone the dangerous changes in temperature and weather from the rim to the base of the Canyon, it makes the Grand Canyon a dangerous place for those who are not prepared.

Fig 4: Proper planning can result in a hike that is safe and enjoyable. My partner and I made this stop at Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. This is about 3 miles and 2,000 ft. lower than the Rim and offers beautiful views of the Inner Canyon.  

Hiker's Peril - Temperature and Humidity

The properties of the atmosphere and location of the Grand Canyon account for some amazing daily temperature differences. The change in temperature you will experience from the Rim to the Base of the Canyon may be the greatest you will ever feel on any hike. It is not out of the question to see greater then a 60-degree temperature change from a hike that starts out in the morning on the Rim and ends by mid-afternoon at the Colorado River! In the summer, the temperature at Phantom Ranch at the base of the Canyon regularly tops 100 degrees and on occasion can get as high as 120 degrees.  As an example, on Saturday, June 12, 2021, the sunrise temperature on the South Rim was 43 degrees. That afternoon, at the base of the Bright Angel Trail, down at Phantom Ranch, the temperature had skyrocketed to 116 degrees!

Figure 5: Summary of weather conditions on June 12, 2021 at the Rim and Base of the Canyon. At 5:43 AM the temperature at the Rim was 43 degrees, later that afternoon, Phantom Ranch at the Base of the Canyon recorded a sweltering 116 degrees.

There are two primary factors that cause this tremendous difference in temperature.  The first is elevation. In the atmosphere, the temperature changes by about 3.5 degrees for every 1,000 ft. of elevation. As you go higher it gets colder, that’s why you see snow on mountain tops. The reverse is true if you descend into a Canyon. So, with a nearly 5,000 ft. difference from Rim to Base of the Canyon, the temperature difference will approach 18 degrees.

The second is the desert location of the Canyon. The air is exceptionally dry in this part of the world. The drier the air, the quicker it heats and cools down.  So, it gets colder at night and hotter during the daytime than air that has higher humidity. Sandy soils also heat up and cool down much more quickly than soils that hold more moisture.

This combination of factor produces a “double-whammy” in the Canyon. Let’s look at a standard “desert climate” hike that starts in the morning and ends in mid-afternoon, like the one from the Rim to the Base of the Canyon. Sunrise will be extra cool. However, by mid-afternoon, the desert air has heated very rapidly so it’s hot. Now add the fact that the temperature will actually increase, on average, another 17-18 degrees from when you began at the higher elevation in the morning and you end up with hot on top of hot!  In the example below, a person starts out on a Rim to Base hike at 45 degrees in the morning and ends up at 107 degrees by mid-afternoon! 

Figure 6: This cross section of the hike on South Kaibab Trail from Rim to Base shows the combination of the rise in temperature due to elevation that naturally occurs in the atmosphere. Coupled with a daily temperature rise from sunrise to mid-afternoon in a desert environment, it is common to start a hike in the 40s and end in an oven at over 100 degrees!

This kind of heat in very dry air promises to literally desiccate anyone who does not have adequate water on a hike like this. In a very dry environment like the Canyon, you don’t feel like you are sweating because your sweat immediately evaporates into the dry air. This makes it even more dangerous for the unsuspecting hiker because you do not feel like you are losing water. Far too often, it’s too late by the time one discovers just how dehydrated they are. Those who are not prepared pay the price with severe dehydration, heat stroke and in some cases death. It is paramount to carry enough water and sip it frequently when hiking. The South Kaibab Trail has NO water sources on it. We each carried about a gallon of water on our trip down. On the trip back out along the Bright Angel Trail, there are a few water sources available depending on the time of the year.  However, you cannot rely on them. It is always important to take along your water filter if you need to pull water out of a creek. 

Most of the issues associated with those who need medical attention or need to be rescued can be traced to two factors; people do not carry near enough water for a hike in this high-desert environment and they are not dressed for the conditions to hike, especially when it comes to footwear.  Even if you decide to take a short walk down the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim of the Canyon, make certain you have adequate hiking shoes that give you the support necessary to walk on rocky, sloping trails. Many of the injuries that occur in the Canyon are associated with improper footwear that lead to anything from twisted ankles to broken legs. Carry water, more than you think you will need. Sip it often, and remember, even though you may feel you are not seating and don’t need water, your body is constantly evaporating water but because of the dry air, you do not feel sweat.

Understanding the unique climate of the Grand Canyon and the fact that your first half of the hike will be much easier than the trip back up and out, will make your experience much more enjoyable. Any trip into the Canyon is sure to give you a better understanding and feeling of this Wonder of the World. Take the time to plan and prepare and your rewards will be well worth it. Enjoy!!

Figure 7: Looking up from the base of the Canyon, this hiker reflects the awe one feels as they fully experience this Wonder of the World. It can be a bit overwhelming to see how far they have hiked and how far they still have to go. But it's truly worth it. After a Rim to Base hike, you really understand this Wonder of the World.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Portland, OR and Seattle, WA Get Snow and Ice Storms

National Weather Service Winter Alerts Issued Thursday, February 11, 2021 for parts of Washington and Oregon. Note the Blizzard Warning for the tiny area on the map, The Columbia River Gorge.

Rough winter weather is being forecast for the Pacific Northwest. In fact, Blizzard Warnings were issued, not for the mountains, but the Columbia River Gorge only a few miles from Portland.  In Portland and Seattle Winter Storm Warnings were posted. Don't these cities normally just gets clouds and rain in winter?  Yes, for the most part they do, however under specific weather patterns, they can get their share of winter weather.  

I find mountain weather so very interesting. Combine the largest ocean in the world on one side of these Pacific Northwest cities and some of the tallest and snowiest mountains in North America to the east and you get a wonderful natural laboratory to study the weather!

Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington are located on the Pacific Northwest Coast in between the warm and moist Pacific Ocean to the west and the towering Cascade Mountains to the east.  Because of their proximity to the coast and their sea level elevation, both cities receive very little in the way of winter weather.  In fact, Portland receives only 4.3 inches of snow annually and Seattle gets just a bit more at 6.8 inches.

You will want to look closely at two features on the map above, The Fraser River Valley in southern British Columbia, Canada up north and the Columbia Rover Gorge in the southern part of the map.  These two geographic features play a big role in wintry weather for Seattle and Portland. 

The biggest reason these two locations do not get much snow is that it is just too warm long the coast to see much in the way of frozen precipitation. Essentially, The Cascades act as a gigantic wall to keep the cold air that comes down out of Canada to the east of the mountains, protecting the West Coast from frequent outbreaks of really cold air.  

Down along the coast, at sea-level there aren’t many ways to get cold enough for snow or ice.  Just east of the coast however, it snows “to beat the band” in the Cascades because higher elevations alone produce a much colder environment, one that is much more favorable for snow.  The temperature drops a little more than 3 degrees for every 1,000 ft. elevation. If you go up 5-10 thousand feet that's a 15 to 30 degree drop in temperature, more than enough in the winter to make snow.  The extra lift created by prevailing westerly onshore winds heading up the slopes of these 10,000+ ft. mountains also wrings out more precipitation from the moisture-laden air. 

It’s crazy when you realize that Seattle is only about 50 miles as the crow flies from Mt Rainier. The mountain tops out at 14,411 ft. and at the Paradise Ranger Station, elevation 5400 ft., they average 639 inches of snow each winter. Back in the winter of 1971-72 they picked up 1,122 inches of snow, a world record at that time, while Seattle averages 6.8" of snow.

Wow!! What a difference 50 miles makes. This may be one of the greatest differences in annual snowfall over such a small distance. 

So, what does it take to get snowfall in locations like Seattle and Portland, its neighbor to the south? Well, you need a way to get cold air across the Cascades and into those coastal areas. A few times each winter season, the large-scale weather pattern sets up to provide a way to get that dense, cold air across the mountains.  Those conditions begin with the presence of an Arctic High Pressure system over western Canada that pushes very cold air down along the east side of the western mountain ranges.


In Seattle and locales around the Olympic Peninsula, that cold air can come through gaps in the mountains that are to the east.  Under conditions with strong High Pressure east of the Cascades and Low Pressure just off the Pacific coast, a pressure gradient develops from east to west. The wind wants to blow from high to low pressure, like letting air out of a balloon. The really cold and dense air from east of the Cascades wants to get west, but it’s so dense it is tough to get over the mountains.  However, where there are gaps in the mountains, it offers a perfect gateway for the air to move through, sometimes all the way to the coast.  

The Fraser River Valley, just across the Canadian border in British Columbia serves as a significant gateway for that arctic air to pass through and it is often responsible for pre-conditioning the temperature of the lower atmosphere with cold air to produce snowfall.


Portland has some of the same characteristics as Seattle, but is located about 100 miles south.  Instead of getting cold air through the Fraser River Outflow, Portland is right at the mouth of the Columbia River, which runs from east to west through the Cascades and down to the coast. 

The gorge is the only near sea level gap through the Cascades. Its average width is about 3 miles at river level.  It stretches 120 miles back to the east and the western entrance is less than 15 miles from Portland.  The crest of the Cascades lies about 45 mi east of Portland.  

One of the most beautiful places in the world in my book, The Columbia River Gorge features some amazing weather, including strong winds that allow for some great wind surfing. In winter, maybe not as inviting.


In fact, Portland Oregon gets a majority of its wintry weather when the winds are out of an easterly direction. On a broad sense of course, you would be hard pressed to get snow or ice from the westerly winds coming off that warm ocean.  However, similar to Washington State, a large pressure gradient between arctic air and strong High Pressure to the east of the Cascades and Low pressure off the Pacific Coast results in a flow of cold, dense air from east to west through the gorge.  

The graph below shows, without a doubt, the dependence on wind direction to produce wintry precipitation in Portland.  When the low-level winds are from the east and the mid-level flow is from the west, it becomes the “perfect storm” of sorts for snow or ice.  Snow will occur under conditions when the atmosphere is also cold aloft.  Typically, that comes with closed upper levels “cold-core” Lows.  However, if the air aloft is warm and the easterly gap winds are below freezing, then precipitation formed way up in the clouds in the form of snow melts as it drops through the warmer mid-levels then refreezes as it hits the surface where the temperatures are below the freezing mark. 

The distribution of annual snowfall and freezing rain vs. wind direction clearly shows just how important the role of easterly winds is for wintry weather in Portland, Oregon. 

The soundings below, taken at Salem Oregon, show the difference in the temperature throughout the atmosphere for snow vs. ice events in the Lowlands in Oregon to the west of the mountains including Portland. Notice the above-freezing layer in the sounding on the left, perfect for melting snow which then freezes on contact where surface temperatures are well below freezing. The sounding on the right shows above freezing surface temperatures but the atmosphere quickly cools below freezing a few hundred feet off the ground. That temperature and moisture profile results in heavy, wet snow. 

No, they don’t get too many snowstorms or ice storms in the Pacific Northwest, but they are more common than you might think in places like Seattle and Portland. You just need the proper ingredients to come together in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Voila, you have the recipe for winter weather.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Photographing Snow Crystals - On A Budget



If you have read some of my other blog entries, you know how interested I am in snow crystals.  I have seen some amazing photographs from scientists in many publications, but these guys all have a couple things in common; they usually are connected to some sort of university where resources are endless, and they also put thousands of dollars into sophisticated equipment to get the photos.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I wish I could do that too, but I am on a budget, so I decided to share some of my methods for taking photographs and enjoying nature without spending an arm and a leg.  Over the past few years, I have experimented with much more affordable ways to photograph snow crystals and I think the results have been pretty good as my blog “Mother Nature’s Snow Crystal Workshop” discusses.

I will begin by noting that you need cold weather of course to photograph with any success. If it’s close to the freezing mark and the sun is out, those snow crystals will melt as soon as they hit a surface. At a minimum, I want to outdoor temperature to be at 27°F or colder.  You also want to be watching for tiny flakes falling from the sky. Those big, fluffy flakes you see coming down are not individual flakes, they are made up of hundreds of individual snow crystals. Check out the photo below. This is what is left of one of those half-dollar sized flakes after it landed on my back deck.  I hope this shows how closely you need to look for those beautiful snow crystals.

Setting Up Your Workspace - Don’t Breathe On The Snow Crystals!!

Before we go further into how to view and photograph snow crystals, there are some important ground rules to remember.  First and foremost, in the excitement of looking at a snow crystal, remember that one warm breath can melt that beauty away in an instant. So, be careful to not breathe on them!  Below is my typical workspace, a piece of black felt or fleece on my deck railing. It is being held down by a couple pieces of firewood to keep the fleece from blowing off the deck. 

Prime Weather Conditions

As I noted, I like to work under conditions where the air temperature is at about 27°F or colder.  If it’s warmer than that, it’s tough for the snowflakes to hang around long enough before they begin to melt. I also like to work under calm wind conditions.  Brisk winds can easily break the delicate crystals on their way down to earth, so you end up with a lot of fragments rather than a nice symmetrical dendrite.  If plates or columns are falling, calm conditions aren’t as critical but it helps. Try to photograph on a day when it’s not bright sunshine. I like to get out right after sunrise and sometimes will work at night with the help of a couple of cheap LED flashlights (less than $2) to keep the sun from melting the snow crystals as I collect them. 

Also, be ready to get cold quickly.  Dress warmly for the time you will spend outside.  You will need a thin set of gloves to help maneuver the crystals and your camera to get the best photos.  I can’t tell you how often I step into the house to warm my fingers before heading back out to photograph again. 

Photo Setup 

For my iPhone and camera photography, I normally want to get good contrast between the crystal and the background.  That is why I use my black fleece jacket or a piece of black fleece or felt from a fabric store (Walmart less than $2).

The fleece and felt collects crystals nicely, and since those materials are not perfectly smooth, they can trap the crystals so they do not get easily blown away by even the slightest winds. I have also taken a piece of smooth, clear plexiglass and spray painted it black for a background (total cost ~$4). In calm winds you can get some nice photographs off that smoother surface as well.   However, dark surfaces absorb even more solar energy, so be aware that even if its marginally cold outside, solar insolation, even coming from behind clouds, may quickly melt crystals on those dark surfaces. 

Below are some of the "tools of my trade".  I have a little coni/stamp magnifying glass that I can use to look at snow crystals close-up. However, because my face is so close to the crystal, I must hold my breathe while looking at them. Next is my iPhone with the clip-on macro lens, followed by glass slides for collecting specimens to put under a microscope.  Finally, there is my Olympus TG-6 camera which I use to get some of my best photos. The image below the setup was taken with an iPhone on my fleece jacket.

Almost everyone has a smart phone with a nice camera on it these days and with that little phone you can do a lot. Add a cheap macro lens (~$15) and you can see more. You can then go up to an affordable camera that isn't as much as what the professionals use; typically a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera with macro lenses and extension tubes.  The camera I use now is a reasonable option that’s in the price range of about $350 and has some nice innovations to produce quality photos. Finally, there is a section of photos that I took through my borrowed microscope. If you have a scope, you might want to experiment with that.


I started out photographing snow crystals with just my iPhone, then added a cheap plastic macro lens (about $15) to get a better close-up.  Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by what I could do with a very steady hand and the phone. Steadiness is key to getting a good close-up photo. I have used a little remote (Amazon $5) to shoot with the iPhone so that I would not be holding (and shaking) the camera when I took the photo.  Here’s a photo I took in Buffalo, NY on a very cold day, with the black painted plexiglass, I tinted it blue with GIMP software to get a better effect. Not bad!  

Canon G-12

I love this camera for all it can do in a nice little camera. It not only has full manual capability but it allowed me to get in pretty close for some nice snow crystal photos.  Technology has come a long way since this camera was introduced, but I still use it for all sorts of photos. Here is a look at a photo that captured some beautiful snow crystals up in Buffalo, NY.



After seeing the beautiful photos from Kenneth Libbrecht on his site snowcrystals.com,  and the thousands of dollars of camera and microscope gear he used to get those photos, I was a bit intimidated, but I still wanted to find a way to do more. I was able to “borrow” a nice, old microscope from a colleague. Now, for professional photographers, this next idea may sound insane, they would use special extension tubes, connectors, filters, etc., to attach a camera to the scope. That would add up to a lot of money but also some pretty decent photographs. I opted for the cheap route. 

I used a rubber connector from a plumbing supply store ($1.68) and mounted my Canon G-12 camera on the eye-piece. Using the “self-timer” on the camera set at a 2-second delay, I was able to photograph the crystals I collected on my glass slides without shaking the camera as I took the photo. I front or back-lit the crystals with 2 small LED flashlights.  Mind you, this is all being done outside, either in my garage (unheated of course) or out on the front porch. Below is an actual photo using the microscope at 10x power and the cleaned up version after I put it into some free photo software (GIMP) and Powerpoint to clean them up and put them on nice backgrounds.

If I am working with a microscope and camera, I like to set my slides out in a shallow box to capture falling crystals, minimizing even the slightest breeze to allow the crystals to land on the smooth slides.  I also put a dark material like black felt inside the box to place the slides on, so it is easier to see the crystals that land on the clear, glass slides.  You have to very careful lifting them out, warm fingers can melt the crystals, and any movement might make the prize crystal slide off the slide.  Below is part of an extensive collection of snow crystal photographs I have made with the microscope/camera setup.  I was pretty pleased with what I have been able to do with the resources I had available.



Olympus TG-6

One of the most difficult parts of macro-photography is that when you are shooting really close to a specimen, it’s very difficult to get things in focus.  Often, a portion of the 3-dimensional snow crystal will be out of focus.  So, photographers use a method called stacking, where they take several photos of the object with tiny adjustments to the focus.  With the help of computer software it will combine these images into one, more fully-focused photo.  Sounds like a lot of work and it is, but wait!!  Olympus, the camera people have just come up with a brilliant idea. They combined that “stacking software” right into their TG-6 camera.  When I heard about that, I immediately went out and bought the camera (Olympus TG-6 $350). It was my biggest investment so far, but I think it was well worth it.  I have not been disappointed.  Below, I have posted several photos of snow crystals I have taken here in the Appalachian Mountains of far Eastern Tennessee with at TG-6 camera. 

Note how nicely focused the photos are.  That stacking technology built into the camera really has helped. I often also use the camera with a small tripod so I can get right up close to the snow crystals and also to keep the camera from shaking. Finally, I again employ the self-timer to keep my finger off the camera while the photo is being taken.

The really great part about taking photos with the TG-6 and the fleece background is that is really gives you a 3-D effect for the snow crystals. It allows then to stand up, rather than lying flat and gives an entirely new perspective to the crystals compared to the microscope photos.  

One of my favorite shots I have taken is the snow crystal suspended off the filaments of an artists brush as shown below.   


Another favorite is this photo taken with the TG-6. I was able to prop the crystal up and the photo looked right through it.

There are many other innovative ideas for taking close-up photographs like these including reversing the lens on a DSLR, and using extension tubes with those more expensive cameras. I likely will be going that route soon.  This hobby can become very addictive and very enjoyable at the same time.  I will leave you with an assortment of snow crystals photographed with my microscope, some of them are strange indeed. See if you can find even stranger ones next time you look closely at snow crystals !!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Great Lakes Ice Cover Nears Record Low

Jan 23, 2021 satellite image of 4 of the 5 Great Lakes (excluding Superior) on a rare day when there are clear skies across the region in winter. Notice Lake Michigan is essentially ice-free except for some ice visible in Green Bay. Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron also had ice cover but the shallow western end of Lake Erie, was devoid of ice at a time of the year when it is normally covered. 

What do you notice, or should I say, NOT notice on the Great Lakes in the above satellite image? Well, it is smack dab in the heart of the winter season and yet there is precious little ice cover on the lakes. The image above shows a cloud-free Lake Michigan along with Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron and a few cloud free zones on western Lake Erie and the northern half of Lake Ontario (Lake Superior is not visible in this image). Notice, the only areas with any ice cover are Green Bay and Saginaw Bay. Even the very shallow western end of Lake Erie is ice-free.

Map of the Great Lakes showing the ice cover and thickness on January 21, 2021.  Only the shallower bays have developed any ice cover so far this season. 

This image of the Niagara River Ice Boom at the east end of Lake Erie at Buffalo, NY shows something that does not happen very often. There is no ice to be seen and its the third week in January. The boom is installed every winter to keep ice from going down the Niagara River and causing jams that could disrupt power production at the Niagara Power Project. 

All of the lakes are way below where they should for ice cover this season.  Overall, the Great Lakes normally have about 17% ice cover by this point in the season and right now it is at less than 3%. Below is a look at each lake, showing the long-term averages for ice cover through the season. I highlighted January 21st to compare the average ice coverage for the date vs. January 21st, 2021. The numbers are mind-boggling. On Lake Erie, the shallowest of all of the Great Lakes, the ice cover should be at 45% at this point in the season, but its only 3% ice-covered!  Click on each lake image to see a larger view.   


So, just why has there been so little ice cover on the Great Lakes?  Well, they answer is pretty straightforward, it is directly connected to the average air temperature across the region so far this winter.  An analysis of the temperatures for select U.S. stations across the Great Lakes (adjacent Canadian stations are similar) show just how warm it’s been, with locations anywhere from 4 to 8 degrees above normal. In fact, stations across the Upper Great Lakes Region are seeing their Top 5 warmest winters on record and at St. Ste. Marie on the eastern shore of Lake Superior, it has been a record warm winter so far.

Season-To-Date average temperature departures for selected locations through January 21,2021.  Notice that the Great Lakes Region is currently running from 4 to 8 degrees above normal. 

Great Lakes Ice Season

Each of The Great Lakes typically develop a range of ice cover every winter season.  It takes a while into the winter to actually get cold enough to develop ice. That’s because there is such a huge volume of water in the lakes and it takes a lot of time for that water to cool to the freezing point. Fun Fact: If you emptied all of the water in the Great Lakes, it would cover the entire United States to a depth of about 9 feet!

The animation below highlights the weekly median ice cover at 2-week intervals from January 1st through May 1st  over the period 1973-2002.  Typically ice begins to develop in bays and shallow areas by early January, and by mid to late February Lake Erie often freezes over completely.  Others, like Lake Michigan and Ontario rarely develop more than 20% ice cover.

Weekly median ice coverage across the Great Lakes every 2 weeks from January 1st through May1st for 1973-2000. 

One thing that stands out when you view the growth of ice cover through the season above is how quickly Lake Erie ices up compared to the other Great Lakes.  It all has to do with the volume of water contained in each lake, and the ratio of the surface area of the lake to the volume.  If you look at the Great Lakes statistics, you can see how much shallower Lake Erie is compared to the other lakes.   Let’s compare two adjacent lakes that are about the same size when you look at them from above, Erie and Ontario.  Lake Erie has a surface area of 9,910 mi2 , while Lake Ontario has a bit smaller surface area of 7,340 mi2.  However, Lake Ontario has a volume that is over 3 times that of Lake Erie (393 mi3 vs. 117 mi3).  Lake Ontario is 802 ft. at its deepest point, while Lake Erie is only 210 ft. at its deepest point and its average depth is only 62 ft.  It takes a lot longer to cool down the much greater volume of Lake Ontario that is over 3 times that of Lake Erie.  There is also a much greater ratio of Lake Erie's volume of water exposed to the cold air above.  It’s like putting a shallow, circular pan of water into a freezer next to a deep pail with the same circular size (surface area).  That shallow pan ices up much more quickly. 

This is a great cross-section illustrating so many of the characteristics of the Great Lakes. A quick glance will point out just how shallow Lake Erie is compared to all of the other Great Lakes.  


This table shows the volume of water in each lake as well as its surface area.  The ratio of the surface area of each (A) compared to the volume of water (V) is also shown. Not only does Lake Erie have much less volume of water compared to all of the other Lakes, it also has the greatest ratio of surface area to volume, showing it has a much greater percentage of its volume exposed to the cold air.

Some Implications of Meager Ice Cover

One of the potential dangers with so little ice cover on the Great Lakes this far into the winter season is the fact that ice, especially thick and extensive ice cover that is held fast, helps protect the adjacent shoreline areas from the battering waves and high water that ferocious winter storms can produce.  To add to the potential for serious damage to the shoreline, the water levels of all of the Great Lakes are above the long-term average. Although not quite as high as last winter, some of the lakes are still near record high water levels. The combination of no ice cover and high-water levels is like a ticking time bomb that will keep property owners on guard as the winter wears on. 

Jan 22, 2021 Weekly Great Lakes water levels show how much higher than the long-term  monthly average each lake is right now. The Michigan-Huron complex is running 31 inches above normal, while Lake Ontario is presently only 1 inch above normal.  

From a recreational point of view, less ice cover means less ice-fishing, a sport that is wildly popular in many Great Lakes cities during the winter. For those who do venture out onto the ice, the dangers increase because in many cases the thickness of the ice will not be enough to support vehicles and other gear. 

These great aerial photos compare the ice conditions on Lake Ontario at Sodus Point, along the south shore of the lake about 40 miles east of Rochester, NY. What a difference three years makes.  In January 2018, ice fishing was booming in this region but this year, there is nary an ice cube to be found. (Courtesy John Kucko)

With temperatures as warm as they have been so far this winter, there is not only no lake ice to be found, but the infamous lake-effect snow machine that typically hammers areas downwind of the Great Lakes with heavy snow, has almost completely stalled out. Cities from Buffalo to Marquette have much less snowfall this season because as I have always said, “it takes two to tango to make snow”. You need cold air and moisture, so, ironically, ice-free lakes do not promote lake-effect snow because of the same reason the lakes are ice free, it’s been warm. There hasn’t been much cold air to produce that snowfall.  I also get the question/comment that because there is still so much open water this late into the winter season, that means we could be in store for a major lake-effect snowstorm.  But once again, "it take two to tango" and until we actually do get a cold airmass to cross those open lakes, then we only have half the ingredients to fulfill that prophecy. 

Seasonal snowfall through January 23, 2021 compared to the average for the date. In places like Grand Rapids, Michigan they have picked up only 20% of what they normally get by now. It will take some time this year for Marquette to make it to the 100 inch club and Buffalo is not living up to its snowy reputation either.  

One other implication for the Great Lakes is that less ice cover, or more open water, actually increases the evaporation that occurs off the surface of the lake. Greater evaporation could lower Great Lakes water levels.  Now, in the short-term, based on current high water levels, that could help get us back to normal.  However, climate models suggest that a warmer atmosphere would more permanently increase evaporation in winter, while at the same time increase rainfall and runoff going into the Great Lakes due to the fact that warmer air holds more moisture. Climate change is a very complicated game and I will not be addressing the potential impacts in this article. However, the simple fact that we are living in a world with a background increase in temperatures certainly points toward less ice cover occurring more often in the future. 

As I have said many times, society has been built to live within the confines of the current climate. Any changes in the climate of a region will undoubtedly have some positive impacts but more often will have a negative impact on society because our civilization has been built without much foresight into the future.  

I close with warning anyone who would want to venture out onto the meager ice in bays or along shorelines to be extra careful. It may not be thick enough to support a lot of weight. If you live along the shoreline, stay on guard for warnings about lakeshore flooding and erosion, and if you are waiting for a good lake-effect snowstorm, pray for cold air.  Be safe and enjoy all that winter has to offer!