2008-01-03 / Outdoors

There's 'snow' place like Michigan

GREAT OPPORTUNITIES Four-year-old Hannah DeHaan of Grand Rapids skis the trail next to Marl Lake Thursday as (background left to right) grandfather Dale Hartman of Roscommon, sister Emma, 2, and mom Laura try to catch up. (Photo by Thomas Reznich) GREAT OPPORTUNITIES Four-year-old Hannah DeHaan of Grand Rapids skis the trail next to Marl Lake Thursday as (background left to right) grandfather Dale Hartman of Roscommon, sister Emma, 2, and mom Laura try to catch up. (Photo by Thomas Reznich) Michigan in winter is a wonderland for skiers, snowmobilers and other winter sports enthusiasts who welcome the snow for the fun and excitement it brings.

If you're like these folks, hearing those magical words, "It's snowing" will send you scurrying to the closet, basement, attic and garage to drag out your equipment and prepare for your first big outing.

In most years that first snowfall is just a tease, usually melting away because the earth is still too warm for it to last.

But not this year. Most northern areas received an abundance of snow, and much of it is still on the ground, which is great news for the state's winter-recreation businesses and for all who flock to our state's northern winter playgrounds each weekend.

Michigan's early-in-the-season windfall of snow this year can be credited to the Great Lakes and the phenomenon known as lakeeffect snow.

When cold Arctic air sweeps across the unfrozen lake waters, local, often heavy, snow squalls develop along the downward lake shores. Most of this heavy snowfall occurs not during the passage of large low-pressure systems but in the cold air behind the storm fronts. In the most severe lakeeffect squalls, snow accumulations of more than 30 inches per day are common with snowfall rates as great as 11 inches per hour.

Lake-generated snow squalls are the result of energy and moisture exchanges between cold air masses descending from the Arctic and the relatively warm water of a large lake such as a Great Lake. These squalls are restricted to areas where cold air blows over a lake for an extended time. They are most pronounced and effective wherever terrain barriers are oriented along the lee shores that are sheltered from the wind.

The intensity of the snowfall depends upon three factors: the temperature contrast between the lake surface and the overpassing air, the over-water distance the air has traveled and the regional weather situation.

Although lake-effect snowfalls usually come in the form of light to moderate flurries, one single intense local storm cell can yield as much as 48 inches of light density snow in 24 hours or less. These storms travel farther inland under higher wind speeds while the upper-air winds control their direction. As a result, an individual cell of heavy snow may remain in place for several hours then, with a shift in wind direction, move to drop its snow on another area.

Satellites and radar show that lake-effect snow clouds most often form in long, narrow bands over the lakes and are swept inland by the wind. Small multiple bands develop when the wind blows across the shorter dimensions of the lake.

In contrast, the wind blowing the length of the lake may form a single large cloud band as much as 50 miles wide and 25 to 100 miles long. This intense type of cloud band causes localized blizzards with swirling, blowing snow which can reduce visibility to zero.

Lake-effect snowfall contributes between 30- and 50% of seasonal snowfall on eastern and southern shores of the Great Lakes, more than 35% of the seasonal snowfall in the western lower Michigan snowbelts and more than 20% in the Upper Peninsula snowbelts. The greatest impact occurs in Michigan, where the snowbelts are nearly continuous along the lee shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

It's here in these northern areas, when the snowpack is deep enough, that our majestic forests become winter playgrounds, offering nearly 3.9 million acres for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and more than 6,100 miles of designated snowmobile trails that wind through absolutely spectacular scenery.

Plenty of winter fun also awaits at Michigan's four-season state parks. Even though your favorite campground may be closed for the season, the rest of the park is open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, skating, ice fishing, snowmobiling and a host of other activities. For information, visit the DNR web site at www.michigan. gov/dnr and click on the Recreation and Camping link.

Then when winter's blast of freezing temperatures seals over Michigan's inland waters, almost overnight, hundreds of little communities spring up on our lakes and bays, populated by rugged ice anglers who are treated to some of the best fishing available.

In order to encourage more women to become active outdoors, the DNR's Becoming an Outdoors- Woman program hosts a major winter event each year in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The winter programs have grown substantially in recent years. What began as ice fishing and winter bird-watching classes has expanded to include popular programs on snowshoeing, dog-sledding, winter outdoor survival skills and even river rafting.

The next winter BOW programs are slated for Feb. 22-24 at the Bay Cliff Heath Camp at Big Bay northwest of Marquette and at the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center at Higgins Lake Feb. 29- March 2. For information, visit the BOW page on the DNR web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Although lake-effect snowstorms in Michigan do have their down side, accounting for lost work and school days, increased expenditures for snow removal, and, on occasion, hazardous driving conditions, their up side is no matter how you choose to celebrate winter, when the white stuff is here to stay, there's plenty to do and see.

(Editor's note: This article was provided by the DNR as part of its "Showcasing the DNR" program.)

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