Storm Tracking in Michigan

Coll Metcalfe

Jun 13, 2019
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
Norman, OK
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.
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May 1, 2011
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:


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.


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
Hastings, Michigan
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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