PHOTOS: Intense Arctic outbreak creates towering steam devils

Towering steam devils formed on Friday as an intense Arctic chill gripped Eastern Canada and New England.

Folks across Eastern Canada and New England spent Friday searching for warmth and only found bitter cold, raw winds, and steam devils.

Residents of northern Vermont captured multiple steam devils dancing above Lake Champlain amid the brief but intense Arctic outbreak affecting the region to start the month.

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It’s been a relatively mild winter for much of eastern North America so far this season. The lack of seasonably chilly weather has kept many of the region’s major lakes ice-free even as we start February.

Not only have the Great Lakes been mostly clear of ice, but the warmer temperatures have also kept Lake Champlain unusually clear.

Lake Champlain forms the northern section of the border between New York and Vermont, hosting the cities of Plattsburgh, New York, on its western shore, and Burlington, Vermont, on its eastern shore.


Those above-seasonal fortunes changed in a hurry this week as a powerful Arctic front plowed into the region. Temperatures dove to -22°C in Burlington, Vermont, around midday on Friday, with dangerously cold wind chill values bottoming out at -37 as wind gusts of 45-50 km/h buffeted the region.

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Friday’s intensely cold conditions were the perfect setup for the development of steam fog across Lake Champlain. Steam fog develops when relatively warm waters evaporate into very cold air just above the surface. The sudden drop in temperatures condenses that moisture into wispy fog that looks like steam rising from a fresh cup of coffee.

Steam fog is generally harmless, only lowering visibility for boaters and areas near the immediate lakeshore, making it a unique scene for photographers looking to capture the otherworldly essence of some of the coldest air possible in the natural world.

While the conditions on Friday were perfect for steam fog, the addition of gusty winds set the stage for steam devils to develop.

A steam devil is a close cousin of dust devils and snow devils. These narrow whirlwinds can develop on extremely cold days when a thin layer of air near the surface is warmed by the water below and quickly rises through the frigid air above.

This rising column of air can begin to rotate as a result of the gusty winds—think of a basketball player spinning a ball on their finger by swiping the side of the ball. That rotating column of air stretches as it rises, spinning itself into a weak whirlwind that sucks in the steam fog around it, creating a visible yet harmless steam devil towering over the water.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Mary Ann Van Berlo in Maitland, Ontario, in January 2022.

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