Storm Tracking in Michigan

Coll Metcalfe

Enthusiast
Jun 13, 2019
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Los Angeles, CA
Hello StormTracker Community...My name's Coll and I'm a producer on a Discovery Channel series and I was hoping for some guidance. I'm interested in chasing storms that roll off Lake Michigan and move across the state. What I am trying to do is illustratively explain how the lake can amplify weather. What better place to ask than this...Thanks for any advice/guidance/help you all can give.

Awesome website by the way...It's priority bookmark!
 
Mar 30, 2008
1,188
897
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Norman, OK
www.benholcomb.com
Well I spent the first 26 years of my life in lower Michigan and can't really say that the lake amplifies the weather, but there is an instance or two of lake breezes causing storms with landspouts and the 1998-05-31 derecho which the lake "amplified" the effects by causing less friction as the line raced across the lake, downing trees in the Muskegon area and causing an apartment building to blow apart in Spring Lake.
 
May 1, 2011
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Michigan
www.lakefx.net
A great older thread on the subject. Lake Breeze and severe storms in IL, IN, MI, OH

Here's some insight from living just miles from Lake Michigan for 38 years...Much of this will paraphrase the aforementioned document in lay terms.

Supercells (Lake Breeze)

In mid and late summer, Lake Michigan can create a Lake-Breeze Cold Front and of the 5 great lakes, Michigan is probably the best one for creating this specific condition given its North-South orientation and size. First imagine the lake isn't there at all, an area of deep moisture and heat at the surface gather under a large high pressure ridge sitting over the midwest. There are no fronts, boundaries, etc to serve as a focus for the initiation of storms. The day goes by with nothing more than a few "fair weather" cumulus clouds. Now place a 100 mile wide lake under this ridge with a surface temperature 20 degrees lower than the day time air on either side. A "Sea breeze" effect takes place, and by late afternoon, a slow moving 'cold front' has moved 15-20 miles inland on the Michigan side. Now we have a focus for the initiation of storms 1-2 counties inland from Lake Michigan. 9/10 times these 'storms' are benign. But sometimes they go completely nuts. If you can get a lake breeze storm to form over surface easterlies, and just a breath of flow aloft, you can get a supercell and even a Tornado, all thanks to the help of Lake Michigan.

Just like last year. 'Well-photographed' Saturday tornado confirmed in West Michigan

Mesoscale Tornadoes.

One standing theory regarding the Plainfield F5 tornado is that a portion of this storm complex was riding along a modified lake breeze boundary that had drifted onshore, creating a warmed, southeasterly oriented surface boundary that likely created the conditions favorable for a violent tornado in a type storm complex that would otherwise rarely do this.


Derechos and Enhanced Cold Pools.

Such as the scenario in May 1998, In the afternoon before, several tornado producing supercell thunderstorms in South Dakota grew upscale (became an "MCS") and raced west. Overnight this MCS matured and arrived as a powerful, fast moving Derecho over Lake Michigan.

Because it was only late May, Lake Michigan temperatures were still very cold (Probably mid 50s F) and normally would kill off any SURFACE based storms that attempted to cross. However elevated thunderstorms like these don't care because they are feeding off of energy well above the surface accelerated by the cold pool they create at the surface. Lake Michigan did two things, It very much enhanced the cold pool especially once it had crossed. And as mentioned by Ben, with nothing to slow this effect down, the storms accelerated suddenly and resulted in the strongest straight line winds in that storm's evolution across the state of Michigan.

This condition is actually pretty rare, Any later in the year and Lake Michigan has warmed considerably and kinematics (upper level winds) have weakened, Any earlier in the year and the thermodynamics wouldn't likely be in place this far north. Another event in 1991 had very similar conditions but was much later in the year and Lake Michigan had no appreciable effect on the storm, however the strongest winds were still measured on the Michigan side after crossing the lake.

Shelf clouds.

Lake Michigan might be one of the best places on Earth to watch shelf clouds because of frequency, lack of obstructions, and because they are often photogenic. Even weak storm complexes will sometimes generate them. Ben Holcomb has one of the best specimens:
Thanks to the relative evenness of surface temperatures and lack of oragraphic features, there are few disruptions, so storms take on a lovely laminar appearance. Stable air above the lake and ahead of storms contribute to this effect. Even if the storm have long collapsed and gone, the shelf might just keep on going ahead of the former storm's outflow:


Waterspouts.

Starting in September and lasting into November, Lake Michigan's surface temperature remains in the upper 60s F while cold intrusions from Canada bring daytime temperatures diving into the 40's and 50's F. This condition results in a warm moist layer at the waters surface with cold fast moving dry air just aloft. Sometimes storms form right over the lake and can make for some interesting photography moments at night. But even the most benign showers and thundershowers experience an enhanced vorticity stretching close to the surface which can result in waterspouts. Because of the cool, crisp, clear air in the environment around these showers, waterspouts can be spotted many miles away. Makes for a great day of spout spotting at the beach when conditions are favorable.

Otherwise...

Generally speaking however, Lake Michigan serves to weaken surface based storms or keep them from forming. In Spring when the best flow aloft is available, the colder waters weaken instability in the area. In summer, the flow aloft is weak or missing most of the time so even if the Lake is no longer detrimental to storms, these storms might be too weak anyway. By Fall the instability is gone even if the flow aloft has returned. Exceptions occur constantly. Change a variable here or there and you get big storms, sometimes the lake kills them and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it makes them or enhances them. The result is a mixed bag. You'll either love it or hate it. Living in Michigan means watching a lot of storm systems die or never materialize. And a lot of less predictable, but quite interesting weather.
 
Jul 2, 2004
1,775
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11
Hastings, Michigan
www.stormhorn.com
Michael Gavan has pretty much covered the bases. I'll qualify my own comments by pulling the age card, having lived in West Michigan all but one of my sixty-three years. I've been a storm junkie since I was a small boy. That said, I by no means think of myself as an expert, just qualified to share my input. If it's advice you want, mine is to familiarize yourself with the parks--both state and local--along the Lake Michigan shoreline, particularly those with dune overlooks that afford a view. As Michael said, shelf clouds advancing over the lake are often spectacular.

September is the inauguration of Great Lakes waterspout season. I highly recommend that you look into the International Centre for Waterspout Research, operated by Wade Szilagyi of Environment Canada. Wade developed the waterspout nomogram and is the creator of a Great Lakes waterspout forecast map based on the nomogram, which he updates once spout season begins. I think Wade would be pleased to connect with you. Here is the link to the ICWR Facebook page: International Centre For Waterspout Research. For some reason, the link to the Centre's website is currently broken--just temporarily, I hope.

Lake Michigan, as Ben has noted, doesn't amplify storms; if anything, the cooler temps over the lake and onshore in the lake "shadow" can have a stabilizing effect that keeps storms from rooting in the surface. The pseudo cold front does provide convergence that can kick off storms inland. I've noticed that storms often tend to fire up well inland and mature as they move east. I-69 to Lansing and then north on US 127 seems to be a kind of demarcation where formative storms intensify. But this is a general observation on my part and by no means a rule of thumb, just something to watch for; presumably, traveling that distance sometimes allows storms to benefit from daytime heating as they move into a better environment. However, when conditions are right on the west side of the state, storms will go into beast mode here just as well as anywhere else, and we've had some disastrous tornadoes to prove it.

Another thought, as you approach Lakes Huron/St. Clair, is that the lake breezes on the east side are generally easterly, creating backed surface winds that can enhance low-level helicity. So you may get spin-ups as a hitherto garden-variety storm interacts with the eastern LBZ, provided the lake breeze doesn't quash surface-based instability.

Hope this helps.
 
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Aug 18, 2018
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4
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Novi, MI
I’m a Michigan native and have found that the lakes certainly influence and can push the storms to their extremes, in some cases. The only thing that really inhibits amplification of storms here is that thunderstorms can often become elevated as they cross the cool water of the lakes, even in mid summer. This is very true of Superior and Huron, which warm up most slowly.

Lake-breezes occur almost everyday during the summer besides the scenarios where surface winds from the opposite direction of the breeze are strong enough to keep it off shore. I’ve seen many times up north where a storm orographically formed off the hills in interior northern Lower Michigan, drifts east, and then meets the lake breeze. The surface convergence can often lead to an brief yet robust uptick in intensity, especially seen on radar. Downbursts can be seen in these scenarios.

Veering winds with the breeze can also lead to relatively higher tornado potential. In Michigan, northwesterly flow aloft is common during the summer, and if a lake breeze forms off of Lake Huron and moves inland to the west, it can undercut the northwesterly flow and lead to quick, weak mesocyclone formation within any thunderstorm in the area. Brief tornadoes can be seen here, but then, again, cooler area behind the lake breeze can cause the storm to become elevated and quickly lose tornado potential.

You’ve got the lake effect snow during the late fall and winter as well that you could look at.
 
Aug 18, 2018
15
4
1
Novi, MI
Michael Gavan has pretty much covered the bases. I'll qualify my own comments by pulling the age card, having lived in West Michigan all but one of my sixty-three years. I've been a storm junkie since I was a small boy. That said, I by no means think of myself as an expert, just qualified to share my input. If it's advice you want, mine is to familiarize yourself with the parks--both state and local--along the Lake Michigan shoreline, particularly those with dune overlooks that afford a view. As Michael said, shelf clouds advancing over the lake are often spectacular.

September is the inauguration of Great Lakes waterspout season. I highly recommend that you look into the International Centre for Waterspout Research, operated by Wade Szilagyi of Environment Canada. Wade developed the waterspout nomogram and is the creator of a Great Lakes waterspout forecast map based on the nomogram, which he updates once spout season begins. I think Wade would be pleased to connect with you. Here is the link to the ICWR Facebook page: International Centre For Waterspout Research. For some reason, the link to the Centre's website is currently broken--just temporarily, I hope.

Lake Michigan, as Ben has noted, doesn't amplify storms; if anything, the cooler temps over the lake and onshore in the lake "shadow" can have a stabilizing effect that keeps storms from rooting in the surface. The pseudo cold front does provide convergence that can kick off storms inland. I've noticed that storms often tend to fire up well inland and mature as they move east. I-69 to Lansing and then north on US 127 seems to be a kind of demarcation where formative storms intensify. But this is a general observation on my part and by no means a rule of thumb, just something to watch for; presumably, traveling that distance sometimes allows storms to benefit from daytime heating as they move into a better environment. However, when conditions are right on the west side of the state, storms will go into beast mode here just as well as anywhere else, and we've had some disastrous tornadoes to prove it.

Another thought, as you approach Lakes Huron/St. Clair, is that the lake breezes on the east side are generally easterly, creating backed surface winds that can enhance low-level helicity. So you may get spin-ups as a hitherto garden-variety storm interacts with the eastern LBZ, provided the lake breeze doesn't quash surface-based instability.

Hope this helps.
I’ve found almost exactly the same, as I’m from the east side
 

M. Kovalchick

Enthusiast
Oct 20, 2017
2
1
1
Grass Lake, Michigan
The winter storms on or near Lake Michigan can easily rival warm season storms. The shorelines of Lake Michigan can of course get a LOT of wind turning even a minor winter storm into something extraordinary.

Blizzard-Sagautuck Michigan

A wind energy map gives you a good idea just where the wind really blows and areas where it touches the shoreline: Wind Energy Map-Lake Michigan

The Sleeping Bear Dunes area in Leelanau and Benzie counties with the sharp bluff overlooking the lake is one of those areas.
 
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Apr 24, 2015
75
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Grand Rapids, Michigan
Don't know if this thread is still active, but the storm that affected the Grand Rapids area on Sept 11 of this year might be an interesting case study. I didn't ever study the radar data in depth, but there seemed to be an intersection of two outflow boundaries at roughly right angles. The presence of an E-W oriented boundary drifting slowly south through the afternoon and evening with a fairly robust southwesterly low-level jet riding directly up and over it really helped ramp up the effective low level shear. When a second N-S oriented boundary, likely enhanced by lake breeze convergence, moved in from the west, it tilted this shear vertically and created a fairly strong low-level mesocyclone. This lead to a narrow swath of wind damage, most likely non-tornadic, but exceeding EF1 strength in a few spots where slightly elevated terrain helped funnel the wind.

I would say that on the whole Lake Michigan is detrimental to thunderstorm development. The cooling effect of the lake has a tendency to weaken or outright kill storms under ordinary synoptic conditions where severe weather is unlikely anyways. This leads to the typical nuisance mid-summer "lake shadow" drought that often peaks in July and August when synoptic forcing is weak. When conditions are actually ripe for severe weather though, storms are often largely unaffected by the lake as stronger wind fields at 1-2 km will simply pull a thicker layer of unstable air from Illinois over top of the cool lake marine layer.

I also get the sense that there's sometimes a very delicate balance in terms of cloud cover in West Michigan sever weather setups. You normally would want full sunshine to get the maximum destabilization, but I've witnessed a lot of instances where strong afternoon sunshine causes a meso-high over the southern half of Lake Michigan. It sometimes shows up as a bubble of lower dewpoints on an 850hpa meso-analysis. Paradoxically, stronger heating of the land causes more sinking and drying a few thousand feet up over the lake, and this has an effect similar to a capping inversion. I think sometimes a thin layer of cloud (though obviously not thick cloud or rain showers) is better than full sunshine if you want storms to make it across Lake Michigan in tact, so long as there is enough instability.
 

Steven Heicher

Enthusiast
Jul 19, 2019
3
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Nashville, TN
I'm a Michigan native, and like others, got my feet wet with weather in the state.

Everyone else has covered how Lake Michigan serves to weaken storms more than anything, For significant severe setups, the low is typically in Minnesota/Wisconsin or extreme southern Manitoba, the warm front is already well north into the UP or into Canada, and a strong flow of moisture from the south that doesn't really touch the heart of Lake Michigan. Combine that with your other usual severe weather parameters, and you have events like outbreaks that included thr Flint/Beecher tornado on June 8, 1953, or the Hudsonville/Standale tornado on April 3, 1956. The only real time I personally experienced a setup like that was July 2, 1997, when southeast Michigan got hit With several F1 to F3 tornadoes from discrete supercells that ramped up because of that moisture flow. I remember almost driving off the road when I had the radio up to a good song and then we had our first duck farts of the day (EAS alerts), which startled me.

Outside of that, Lake Michigan did ultimately weaken the 1998 derecho, but that derecho was flying over the lake so fast where the effects didn't become apparent until east of the Grand Rapids area. Instead of 130+mph gusts, I only had about 70 and one of the few tornadoes (F1) near my house.
 
Mar 30, 2008
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21
Norman, OK
www.benholcomb.com
Don't know if this thread is still active, but the storm that affected the Grand Rapids area on Sept 11 of this year might be an interesting case study. I didn't ever study the radar data in depth, but there seemed to be an intersection of two outflow boundaries at roughly right angles. The presence of an E-W oriented boundary drifting slowly south through the afternoon and evening with a fairly robust southwesterly low-level jet riding directly up and over it really helped ramp up the effective low level shear. When a second N-S oriented boundary, likely enhanced by lake breeze convergence, moved in from the west, it tilted this shear vertically and created a fairly strong low-level mesocyclone. This lead to a narrow swath of wind damage, most likely non-tornadic, but exceeding EF1 strength in a few spots where slightly elevated terrain helped funnel the wind.
That day was pretty interesting. It reminded me of June 19, 2009. Same idea, a warm front/ofb oriented east/west and a n/s oriented line of storms came from the west and provided some very good spin at the intersection. This seems to happen occasionally in Michigan, although those are the only 2 cases I can remember off hand.
 
Mar 30, 2008
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Norman, OK
www.benholcomb.com
One thing I wanted to add, in addition to Steven's post above.. I actually found that a lot of the bigger severe weather days involve an iowa/s minnesota low with a warm front draped around I-80 in the morning with a lifting WF and deepening low throughout the day moving N/NE. 2007-10-18 is a good example, with the low just east of Omaha in the morning and by 00Z being centered basically over Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Those types of setups seem to be the most chase-able in the area too.
 
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Apr 24, 2015
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Grand Rapids, Michigan
That day was pretty interesting. It reminded me of June 19, 2009. Same idea, a warm front/ofb oriented east/west and a n/s oriented line of storms came from the west and provided some very good spin at the intersection. This seems to happen occasionally in Michigan, although those are the only 2 cases I can remember off hand.
A strong inland-penetrating lake breeze boundary was also implicated in the development of the supercell which spawned the Dexter EF3 on March 15, 2012. The funny thing is only on a bizarre record warm day in March could you possibly get a lake breeze that strong off Lake Erie. The precise mesoscale setup probably would not have panned out in June since Lake Erie is shallow and begins to warm early.
 
Apr 24, 2015
75
26
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Grand Rapids, Michigan
One thing I wanted to add, in addition to Steven's post above.. I actually found that a lot of the bigger severe weather days involve an iowa/s minnesota low with a warm front draped around I-80 in the morning with a lifting WF and deepening low throughout the day moving N/NE. 2007-10-18 is a good example, with the low just east of Omaha in the morning and by 00Z being centered basically over Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Those types of setups seem to be the most chase-able in the area too.
The biggest problem for Michigan IMO is it's hard to get both backed low level winds and a sufficient 850-500 hPa westerly component to get a good virgin EML plume in. When the EML plume has been mucked up by several days of massive upstream convection in an amplified southwest CONUS trough pattern, no amount of afternoon recovery will get the instability back. Quasi-zonal flow across the Upper MS Valley with more subtle western trough is vastly preferable IMO because the instability associated with steeper mid-level lapse rates can get east quickly. Unfortunately, more zonal flow usually means not much backing in the low levels and a stabilizing wind off Lake Michigan. A warm front can sometimes do the trick though, as you mention. You also don't necessarily need high instability to get severe weather in Michigan. It's just that lack of it is often the main limiting factor when other variables are favorable.
 
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