What is Sea Smoke?

Is the Sea on Fire?

As you drive on I-35 northbound on a frigid February morning, you may notice something peculiar when you crest the hill into Duluth. Through a spectacular sunrise, a layer of hazy fog encapsulates the majestic Lake Superior. You may think there is a fire in downtown Duluth with thick layers of smoke billowing across the world's largest freshwater lake. You may think a major storm is moving through the area, with a giant cloud leading the charge. 

Both of these assumptions would be incorrect. When you look down at the thermometer on your car’s dashboard and see a negative temperature, there is one other logical explanation: Sea-Smoke. Yes, that is a thing. No, it is not actual smoke. There is no fire or heat involved (actually, quite the opposite). 


This amazingly beautiful phenomenon occurs when freezing cold air masses descend over a (relatively) warm body of water. With water temperatures under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the water is still BRUTALLY cold. However, when the air mass above the lake is -20 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a nearly 60 degree difference between the air and water temperature. This causes a steam-like cloud that hangs around the surface of the water, much like steam over a cup of hot coffee. 

Sea Smoke over Canal Park. Image Credits: Emily Prigge 

Overhead view of Sea Smoke next to a pier. Image Credits: Woods Creek Productions 



You may be wondering wow this is cool, how do I experience this incredible event? Well, this is a great question. Sea-Smoke can be observed anytime it is really, really cold outside. Like, negative teens cold. Like, I-really-don’t-want-to-go-outside cold. Luckily for us in the Northland, this happens pretty often. While the Sea Smoke Season is slowly coming to an end here in Duluth, odds are it will happen a few more times before Spring rolls around. 


You may be wondering wow this is cool, how do I experience this incredible event? Well, this is a great question. Sea-Smoke can be observed anytime it is really, really cold outside. Like, negative teens cold. Like, I-really-don’t-want-to-go-outside cold. Luckily for us in the Northland, this happens pretty often. While the Sea Smoke Season is slowly coming to an end here in Duluth, odds are it will happen a few more times before Spring rolls around.

There are all sorts of great areas to view the breathtaking fog. The best place is Canal Park near the Aerial Lift Bridge. This area stays open of ice for most of the winter, as ships and other boats need to travel in and out of the canal. The lack of ice allows the water to be exposed to the cold air, leading to increased Sea-Smoke viewing opportunities. Another great spot to watch is Enger Park. You can see EVERYTHING from here with some insane views of the entire canal. Make sure to bring your wide angle camera lens along with hand-warmers! The best time of day to check out the Sea-Smoke is right at sunrise, as this is normally when the coldest temperatures occur. The sun also cuts through the smoke, leading to a warm-ish glow over the area. 


With this spectacular view comes safety hazards. Frostbite can occur within a few minutes in these cold temperatures, so hats, mittens, and neckwarmers are an absolute MUST for this adventure. Hand Warmers and eye-protection of some kind is also recommended, along with your warmest coat, snow pants, and boots. If you decide to brave the weather and visit Lake Superior, be sure to take some pics and tag our instagram @frostriver1910!


Keep your fingers warm while watching the Sea Smoke!

Canal Park encapsulated by Sea Smoke. Image Credits: Woods Creek Productions 



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