Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

The Lake Effect

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Lake Michigan, home, lake, winter, snow, weather,

USDA Zone MapLook at any USDA Cold Hardiness Map and you’ll see a thin band along Lake Michigan colored different from most of the rest of Michigan.  Weather Channel maps in winter often show that same area colored white when the rest of the state is colored green.  Though it may seem as if the map-makers run out of the color they’ve been using when they get to the western side of the state, Lake Michigan is the actual cause of the change in color. 

Lake Michigan keeps this area more temperate than the rest of the state.  Here, along the shore, the wind passing over the cooler lake water keeps our summer temperatures milder.  This gives us a Zone 6 cold-hardiness rating, a zone warmer than most of the rest of the Lower Peninsula – even just a few miles inland from the lake.  In winter, the lake is warmer than the air, resulting in less extreme fluctuations in temperatures.

It’s this relatively warm water in comparison with the cold winter wind that produces the phenomena known as “the lake effect,” and it generates a tremendous amount of snow.  Artic air blowing over the Great Lakes picks up moisture from the water, and deposits it inland as snow.  Areas east and southeast of the lakes are where the lake effect snows are dumped because artic air masses typically come from the west.  So while that same artic air is clearing up the skies over most of the rest of the country, Great Lake communities are fueling their plows and preparing to get buried in snow.  Thirty to sixty percent of annual snowfall in these communities are due to the lake effect.

The local radio station here reported that the South Haven area has had 50 inches of snow since November of this year; 2 feet were on the ground on Christmas Day which makes it the whitest Christmas we've had in the past few years.

Not all of this snow is lake effect; the low pressure cell of winter storms that hit much of the country recently is responsible for some of it.  It’s the air flow that typically comes behind the storm’s front that produces lake effect snow squalls.  The wind can last for days, making lake effect snow bands persistent.

Lake effect snows are not restricted to the Great Lakes region; any large, relatively ice-free lake which provides a long stretch of water (known as “fetch”) with warmer water than the cold air blowing across it can produce lake effect snow.  But lake effect snows are the most common and heaviest along the Great Lakes shorelines.

I’ve always loved Lake Michigan.  I spent many summers of my childhood camping along her shoreline with my family.  Now decades later, living in South Haven just a few blocks from the lake, is a dream come true.  Living on the oppose side of the state as a child, however, I did not experience the lake in winter. 

The shoreline is an entirely different experience than it is in summer; it looks foreign – almost like a barren alien landscape on another planet.  There are no sun-worshippers on the beach – the fair weather visitors are gone as the sun rarely shines in winter.  Yachts and pleasure boats sit elsewhere in dry-dock like beached whales with their bellies exposed.  Great chunks of ice clog the channel to the lake.  Waves roll the icebergs in fluid motion, giving it the appearance of a long serpent breathing deep, deep breaths.  

South Haven Lighthouse

The pier is relentlessly beaten by waves, which start to freeze even as they crash over the top of the structure.  The lighthouse at the pier’s end wears an icy sheath, its paint a red undergarment peeking from beneath.  There are always a few cars in the beach parking lot, their occupants protected from the elements as they watch the power of the lake from their tiny capsules of safety.

Frozen wave mountain near Lake Michigan  

One cannot live by the Lake and not be awe-struck by her power.  Lake Michigan’s voice is deafening in winter, and it calls to me as urgently as a bright summer day beckons the sun-worshippers to the beach.  Weird as some may think this is, I prefer to be out in the elements close to the water, rather then just view it from inside a vehicle.  I love the beach in winter, and I usually have it all to myself.  The fierce howl of the wind blows as bitter as an old maid’s memoirs, and the roar of her waves drowns out any of my yelps caused from the wind slapping my face.       

As I write this, it occurs to me that the lake effect is not just a weather phenomenon.  It’s a feeling; it’s Lake Michigan’s effect on my soul.  At times, it may be as stormy as the lake itself (as when I’ve fired up the snow-blower multiple times a day just to try to keep up with the continuous snow that sometimes never seems to stop).  Most times though, even on the darkest winter days, it’s a peaceful feeling; a feeling of awe that this thing of great beauty and power inspires. 

Lake Michigan has as many moods as it inspires in those who live near her.  Local photographer Karen Murphy (no family relation to me) captures them beautifully on her photo gallery website at

Map courtesy USDA.

cindy murphy
1/9/2009 2:30:03 PM

Lori! I haven't see you 'round these parts in so long, I was about to send out a search party....or at least send an e-mail to wish you a Happy New Year. I have to admit it - I'm an oddity when it comes to having this much snow; I love it! I much prefer winter to spring. Spring here is cold and wet, and if it's going to be cold, I prefer the wet to be in the form of snow. It's been snowing nearly non-stop for the past three days, and I've been in heaven. I've played out in it with the puppy, messed around town on my cross-country skis.....slid around a corner and crashed my car. Ah, there are definitely some drawbacks to having this much snow. But since cross-country skiing is a passion of mine, and because the car is out of commission for at least the weekend, my mode of transportation will have to be the skis. For that I'm not complaining.

1/9/2009 11:37:21 AM

Cindy, I just put in a blog entry about our winter. We don't get nearly as much snow as you, but what we get is to much for me! We've had a lot of ice so far this year! I'm not a cold weather person, so right now I'm dreaming of Spring!

cindy murphy
1/6/2009 6:13:20 PM

Hi, Becky. I debated for a while about growing hardy kiwi in my yard just for fun after I read an artical a number of years ago that they were supposed to be the up-and-coming fruit crop in Northern Michigan. I just didn't have the space though; the things grow monstrously huge. We had one trellised on the side of the store at the nursery as an ornamental - we didn't plant the male of the pair, so no fruit was borne. It threatened to take over the building, the walkways, and I suppose the customers, if they stood in one place for too long. They're extremely hardy here, seem to grow feet a day, and sucker easily. Let me know if you try them; I'd be interested in hearing how they do there....but watch out for your chickens! I'd hate to hear they got swallowed by the vine that ate Foxwood Farm! Sunny days to you, (even if there is snow in the forecast).

becky and andy
1/6/2009 1:10:05 PM

Cindy, I live on the other side of the lake and because of Lake Michigan and a smaller inland lake named Lake Winnebago, our farm is in a little haven of Zone 5. Most of the rest of the area is Zone 4 or 3. I love it: Zone 5 for annuals is like the middle point between northern mainstays and a little more exotic types. (Andy and I have been day-dreaming about planting kiwi vines and other mysterious berry plants that grow up to Zone 5. We'll have to see about winter protection, though) We've had the snowiest December ever on record this year; the previous record from 1888 was broken by three inches. So, I hear ya! Becky

cindy murphy
1/6/2009 7:14:17 AM

It's a very narrow band along the lakeshore only a few miles wide that is rated zone 6, Hank - and it's very deceptive. Oh! to be able to grow everything I want! Zone 6 plants are really only marginally hardy on the lake - which I found out the hard way when we moved here from Kentucky, also a Zone 6. My azaleas were goregous in Kentucky without any care at all; here, they need winter protection. The lake winds will suck the life out of many of zone 6 plants, (like azaleas), and a lot of them, such as bigleaf hydrangeas, die back to the ground, never producing a flower. If we don't get our normal snow-cover, which acts as an insulator, the roots die also. I think though, that the benefits of living on the Lake far outweigh the disadvantages.

hank will_2
1/5/2009 9:55:41 PM

Brrrr....Cindy. I remember lake effect and wind when I was in college and graduate school at the University of Chicago. If the wind was right, it could be an easy 15 - 20 degrees cooler in Hyde Park than 10 miles to the west in the summer. In winter, we sometimes got more snow than the western suburbs ... I totally dug the snow. I had no idea you all were in zone 6. I spent most of my life in zones 3 and 4, so 6 seems positively exotic. We can grow everything I always wanted to grow ... or so it seems.