Lake Michigan Plagued by Hot and Wild Weather, Waterspouts

Reports of bizarre Wizard of Oz-like weather over Lake Michigan are touching down all over the Internet.

This past weekend, up to nine twisters were sighted over the lake. But they weren’t traditional tornadoes; they were waterspouts.

A waterspout parallels a lightning strike over Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Photograph by Fred K. Smith, National Geographic.

(See more photos of waterspouts and other types of extreme weather.)

Waterspouts are most common in warm tropical ocean water, and have been documented extensively in the Atlantic Ocean, especially around the Florida Keys. But they are not unheard of in the Great Lakes region.

There was an “outbreak” in September of 2011 over Lake Michigan. And two were sighted earlier this year.

The funnels form when large, cool air masses move in over warmer surface waters and cause an updraft.

Could the warming that researchers and locals are seeing around the Great Lakes this year mean more waterspouts?

“The Great Lakes warmed faster [this year] than usually because of warmer air temperatures and drier conditions,” National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Brueske told Water Currents. Less cloud coverage this year meant that there was more direct sun heating the water, he added.

Because of the heat wave that hammered the nation this spring and summer, the Great Lakes are approaching the warmest they’ve been in a century, reports Climate Central. Monitoring stations in Lake Michigan that normally see average water temps in early July at just over 60 degrees Fahrenheit clocked 80 degrees on July 6, 2012.

(Related: Heat Waves “Almost Certainly” Due to Global Warming?)


Rains that are almost biblical, heat waves that don’t end, tornadoes that strike in savage swarms—there’s been a change in the weather lately. What’s going on? Find out in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.


Saturday’s spouts were documented by a storm-chasing freighter captain (See video posted on MSN). And the National Weather Service’s Brueske believes we may see more in 2012. The hotter-than-average summer helps, but waterspouts are fairly common this time of year regardless, he explained. “The lake has had all summer to warm, and colder air aloft is more likely to move over the waters as summer ends and fall approaches.”

What could account for an increase in waterspout sightings? “More people with camera phones and enthusiasts who like to share their photos help advertise this interesting phenomena,” Brueske said.

Waterspouts 101

There are two types of waterspouts: tornadic and fair-weather.

Tornadic waterspouts start over land and migrate to water. While fair-weather spouts originate over open water. Unlike tornadoes, waterspouts have a vortex that is created from the ground, or water, up. Fair-weather waterspouts tend to be smaller, and less powerful, but both can usher in high winds, hail, and lightning.

So, spouts are to be feared… a little. National Weather Service Meteorologist Jim Maczko told reporters in July that waterspouts often reach up to 40 to 60 miles per hour. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that boats have been overturned and large ships damaged

(More in this dramatic video clip from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)




Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.