How Does a Sea Breeze Form?

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iStock

Walking outside during the summer can feel like walking into the bathroom after someone takes a shower. The muggy air gives you a great big unwanted hug, fogging up your glasses and forcing you into a gross and near-immediate sweat. If you're seeking relief, head to the beach: One of the great benefits of being near the coast is the cool afternoon breeze that takes the edge off of a hot summer day.

The sea breeze is a wind circulation that forms near the coast when there's a large difference between the temperature of the air over land and the temperature of the air over water. Land heats up much faster than water, so there's usually a big temperature gradient between, say, Mobile, Alabama, and the Gulf of Mexico just a few miles offshore.

The sea breeze process starts when warm, unstable air over the land begins to rise. This rising air creates a small area of lower air pressure at the surface. As part of Mother Nature's balancing act, cooler air over the ocean starts to rush toward land to fill the void left by the rising air. This eventually creates a circulation that continues for as long as daytime heating is present. As cooler air lingering over the water starts to spill inland, humidity goes up a bit, but air temperatures drop as much as 10°F to 15°F once it passes through. You don't need to be on the beach to reap the benefits of this phenomenon, either: A sea breeze can travel as much as 50 miles inland in some locations.

Aside from their cooling relief, sea breezes are most notable for the thunderstorms they can trigger near the coast. Sea breeze thunderstorms don't last for very long, but they can be a doozy, sometimes producing flooding rains, vivid lightning, and occasionally some damaging wind gusts.

Central Florida is famous for dealing with sea breeze thunderstorms almost every day during the warm season. The state's narrow shape allows two sea breezes—one from the Gulf of Mexico and one from the Atlantic Ocean—to collide with each other right in the middle of the peninsula. One sea breeze usually packs enough punch to fire up a hefty storm, but the lift created by two sea breezes colliding can trigger especially vivacious storms, as anyone who's ever visited Orlando's theme parks can tell you.

Once the Sun goes down and the sea breeze wanes, the opposite effect begins to take hold. Water holds onto its heat much better than the land, and as a result the air over the water usually stays warmer at night than the air over land. This disparity between land and sea causes what's known as a land breeze; it's the exact process that goes into a sea breeze, but blowing from the land out toward the sea instead. This process can also lead to thunderstorms, just close enough to the coast that anyone standing on the beach in the early hours of the morning can watch lightning flashing off in the distance.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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