“Lake Effects: Exploring Michigan Weather.”
There’s no doubt that Michigan’s unique geography figures into the weather; where else is there a state that’s surrounded by water on six sides? The exhibit (which opened in October and runs into August) explores not only how lake effects impact Michigan’s climate, but also how the weather resulting from being surrounded by water has affected the state culturally, too.
The term “lake effects” has crept into the vernacular to explain the much more significant snowfalls the state experiences in the areas just downwind of the Great Lakes. Scientifically, it’s fairly simple: The vast expanse of water cools down – as well as warms up – more slowly than the surrounding land. In winter, the air blowing across the lakes picks up moisture and when it hits land – especially at elevated altitudes – it rises, cools, freezes as snow, and falls over the countryside, as far as 100 miles inland.
The reverse is true in spring; warm air passing over cooler water causes cool breezes (and sometimes rain showers). Most years, the cooler air blowing in off Lake Michigan helps prevents fruit trees from blossoming until the danger of spring frost has passed. As a result, the western regions of the Lower Peninsula have become Michigan’s fruit belt, which helps explain why so many orchards are located just inshore of the Lake Michigan shoreline, often in hilly areas.
“Lake Effects: Exploring Michigan Weather” tackles how these unusual weather patterns have helped shape Michigan culture over the centuries. And though the emphasis on winter seems most immediately apropos, the exhibit shows how the geography influences other seasons as well.
Need a “for instance?” Take fog. Like a low-hanging cloud, fog typically forms in summer when air blowing across warm land crosses cooler water. But the reverse is true, too; in wInter, when lakes are warmer than the adjoining land, steam fog – sometimes called “Arctic sea smoke” – forms. Fog had a major effect on Great Lakes shipping before modern radar helped ameliorate its impact. In fact, the first artifact on display as one enters the exhibit is a 1940s-vintage radar unit from a Great Lakes ship.
There are a number of displays of historical weather events, such as the storm of November 1913, which sunk a dozen Great Lakes ships – including 12 in Lake Huron – and killed at least 251 sailors when an arctic front encrusted the ships with heavy snow and ice.
Other notable weather events recalled by the exhibit include the September 1881 fires, which blazed across the Thumb and scorched more than a million acres; the 1953 Flint-Beecher tornado, which cut a 27-mile path of death and destruction through Genesee County; and the blizzard of 1978, which dumped nearly 3 feet of snow across parts of the state and is coming up more often in conversation these days among those with a little gray in their hair.
Most interesting are the artifacts that would doubtless arouse the curiosity of those from warmer climes.
Old skis, boots and poles from bygone eras; a child’s sleigh, built by an employee of the Durant-Dort Carriage Company of Flint more than a century ago; ice skates and fishing gear (a tip-up, a spear and an ice shanty); and even photographs of automobiles parked on Houghton Lake as anglers pull bluegills through the ice – long before the development of Gore-Tex outerwear and Thinsulate boot liners made the pastime more comfortable – all illustrate how much winter recreation is built into Michigan’s culture.
Michigan industry is well represented, too: A display of red flannels produced commercially and sold under a variety of brands in Cedar Springs and an early gas-fire space heater help show the significance of winter to Michigan’s industrial-based economy.
For the more scientific-minded, a display on weather instruments – thermometers, barometers and anemometers, as well as the wooden shelters built to protect instruments from direct sun and precipitation — illustrates how weather events are recorded and predicted. Did you know, for instance, that the world’s largest weather vane – 48 feet high — can be found in Montague in Muskegon County?
“Lake Effects: Exploring Michigan Weather” is at the Michigan Historical Museum, located in the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo, in downtown Lansing. The museum is open 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
In a winter that’s been as harsh as this one, the museum offers an easy, fun way to enjoy the weather without having to put your long johns on.