How the Phenomenon "Arctic Sea Smoke" Overtook Lake Michigan, and Covered Chicago in Snow


Jan. 3 2024, Published 4:19 p.m. ET

Two boats are pictured on water through a thick haze of Arctic sea smoke
Source: Getty Images

Locals and vacationers head to Lake Michigan yearly to surf the waves and relax on the long beaches. They might also stop by Chicago, a nearby city that is more known for its river-centric traditions than its weather events. That all changed when Arctic sea smoke in Chicago showed up in December 2022.

Article continues below advertisement

Read on to discover everything you need to know about the strange phenomenon, and what exactly happened in December 2022 in Chicago.

Two boats spotted on open, sunlit water through a thick haze of Arctic sea smoke
Source: Getty Images
Article continues below advertisement

What is Arctic sea smoke?

Arctic sea smoke occurs when frigid air blows across warm water, as found by Oxford Reference. Researchers at the University of British Columbia describe how the warm water evaporates quickly underneath the cold air, creating a thick fog that dissipates when it rises farther from the water.

This smoke is unlike standard fog. The fog you might see across your yard in the mornings or during your commute happens because airborne water condenses into droplets against the cool earth, per National Geographic. The same research shows it’s even easier to see the droplets if molecules can attach to airborne particles.

Article continues below advertisement

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exist indoors and outdoors due to airborne pollutants being everywhere, according to Mondo Contract Flooring. VOCs come from sources like old paints, tobacco smoke, and even carbon dioxide. They’re another substance for water molecules to cling to and form visible fog.

Article continues below advertisement

As the sun rises and warms the planet, fog disappears because it’s warm enough for the droplets to evaporate. The VOCs may remain if the wind doesn’t carry them elsewhere.

Fog occurs over land, while Arctic sea smoke in Chicago or other waterfront locations occurs directly over a water source. The smoke dissipates as the water warms due to the rising sun or changing seasons.

Arctic sea smoke over Lake Michigan covered Chicago in snow.

On Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, FOX Weather correspondent Robert Ray reported live when Arctic sea smoke in Chicago began worrying residents. The dry-ice effect made the area look eerie. He noted that the water temperature was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit while the wind chill was -5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Article continues below advertisement

The temperature difference meant the wind passing over the water helped the water evaporate, creating the sea smoke or steam fog. As the day continued, the clouds carried snow into the area and combined the two effects.

Article continues below advertisement

Is Arctic sea smoke dangerous?

Sea smoke dissipates as soon as the water or wind temperature rises. It doesn’t reach far from water sources because the fog requires the exact conditions between the water and wind temperatures.

People shouldn’t worry about Arctic sea smoke itself. However, the extremely cold air could pose a threat if you walk outside without adequate winter protection like a hat, jacket, and boots. Arctic sea smoke is primarily only a concern for ships navigating through it during the early morning hours.

Article continues below advertisement

Stay safe during winter weather events.

Now that you know more about the Arctic sea smoke in Chicago, you can better understand how to protect yourself during the weather event. As long as you wear adequate outdoor clothing in the winter, you can watch the fog roll over the water with equal parts awe and respect for nature.

More from Green Matters

Latest Weather & Global Warming News and Updates

    Opt-out of personalized ads

    © Copyright 2024 Green Matters. Green Matters is a registered trademark. All Rights Reserved. People may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.