The Lake Effect

Reader Contribution by Cindy Murphy
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Look 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.  

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.

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.

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