In Brooklin, Maine (December 2016)
One of the many joys of living on the Down East coast is seeing the occasional appearance of sea smoke spiraling and pirouetting over our waters on a cold day. This mysterious phenomenon is a distinct form of fog that sometimes is called frost smoke or steam fog. Below, you can see sea smoke forming over Blue Hill Bay, with Acadia National Park in the background:
Sea smoke is different from the common forms of fog, which really are drifting, low-level clouds that are formed when the temperature gets high enough to make the water in the air condense into liquid dew (i.e., get to the dew point). Thus, common fog, shown to the right, can be all-pervasive and engulf and endanger boats and ships.
Sea smoke is of little concern to larger ships because it drifts and dissipates at relatively low levels above the water. But it sometimes can be a problem for smaller, commercial fishing craft that remain in the water in winter.
One of the things that makes sea smoke special is that it is formed when very cold air sweeps over water that radiates a thin thermal band of relative warmth. The wind sweeps through and condenses the moisture in that band of air into small, dancing crystals. (Think of steam from a freshly brewed cup.)
Sea smoke can happen in full sunlight. In fact, it’s best seen early in the morning when the sun is low and back-lighting maritime scenes. Steaming silhouettes seem to arise out of the the tawny daybreak then.
In the afternoon, after the sea smoke burns off, the same scene can look entirely different -- transformed from other-worldly beautiful to plain Down East beautiful.
Wind seems to be a key element for sea smoke. Often, as the super cold wind sweeps over the waters, the islands split the oncoming smoky spirits, leaving a slip of clear water on their lee sides. Where the islands are close-in, the churning, steaming water seems to become a forbidding moat.
However, it’s in the harbors where the sea smoke ballet is best. There, the brooding boats bob and rock in time with the wind and the rockbound shore looks on stoically.
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Barbara and Dick