12 natural phenomena seen in West Michigan

The sunset over Lake Michigan. (Aug. 16,2015)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Have you ever been outside and noticed a natural phenomenon you couldn’t name or explain?

Here at WOOD TV8, we frequently receive calls, emails and social media questions about weather occurrences. To offer some insight, here are the weird, wild and wonderful natural phenomena that we see on our little slice of the planet.

Shelf clouds
shelf cloud 071815

When a line of storms approaches on a quiet day an ominous looking shelf cloud can overtake the horizon. These dark clouds form on the leading edges of a thunderstorm.

Often times individual storms will join up, align their cold pools and updrafts and form one jaw-dropping shelf that stretches for miles. A storm doesn’t have to be severe to have a shelf cloud, but can often look quite foreboding when it appears on the horizon.

Hoar frost

Hoar frost

Some of the most brilliant winter displays in West Michigan are caused by hoar frost, a special type of frost that coats anything in it’s path. On quiet and cold winter nights temperatures drop well below freezing. If there is enough moisture at the surface, ice fog can form.

These hovering ice crystals begin sticking to everything in their path, creating hoar frost. Unlike normal frost, hoar frost grows and builds on itself. Some of these ice spikes can grow to be several inches long!

Sun dogs, halos and ice rainbows

A Sun Dog, a Circumzenithal Arc and a 22-Degree Halo (Viewer photos)
A sun dog, a circumzenithal arc and a 22-degree halo (viewer photos)


Ice crystals floating high in the sky can sometimes do neat things to the incoming sunlight. Sun dogs, halos and ice rainbows can appear almost magically in the sky when incoming sunshine hits ice crystals that are all the same size.

These crystals refract and reflect the light all in unison, which can create neat optic displays. The more uniform the ice crystals, the clearer and more complete the display will be.

One of the most common optical treats to appear in our skies are sun dogs. These will appear on either side of the sun, looking like little bright squares of a diluted rainbow. Halos are also fairly common, forming a ring around the sun or moon. Upside down rainbows are very rare, but can appear high in the sky when the sun is low.

Undulatus asperatus clouds

A photo of undulatus asperatus clouds near Monett, Missouri on June 7, 2010.

On special occasions in West Michigan, massive cloud waves can be seen crashing through the sky. These are called undulatus asperatus. The atmosphere is constantly mixing, moving and swirling.

Just like the sea, there are days when the atmosphere is calm and days when it is turbulent. Often times those circulations stay hidden.

Undulatus asperatus form when there is enough moisture present in the sky to reveal air on a wild ride.

Lake-effect snow

A photo of Michigan as seen from space on Jan. 4, 2016.

Lake Michigan is the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world, more than 300 miles long and 900 feet deep. When this body of water stays warm into the winter, it can unleash massive amounts of lake-effect snow. Bands of heavy snow can drop several inches of heavy snow in an hour. These snow squalls can be very narrow, only 20 to 30 miles wide!

This means one town could receive a foot of snow in a single event while surrounding areas see absolutely nothing. Lake-effect snow frequently forms when the lake water is more than about 20 degree warmer than the air at 5,000 feet in the atmosphere. The most significant events happen when there is a big boost of energy, and the cold air is especially deep.

Iridescene “fire-bows”

Courtesy: Jon Burleigh Jr.‎
Courtesy: Jon Burleigh Jr.‎


A splash of rainbow can occasionally streak across the clouds in West Michigan in a phenomenon called “iridescence,” but many people just call them “fire-bows.” This effect is only spotted when cloud droplets are especially small and very uniform in size.

Often when a cloud is newly formed, or “young,” and the water droplets are all similar in size. This is why the phenomenon is most common in new clouds.


A waterspout on Lake Superior near Marquette on Oct. 15, 2015.

About once or twice a year waterspouts can be seen spinning over the waves of Lake Michigan. Waterspouts are most common when cold water begins to roll across warm lake water in the fall. There are two types of waterspouts, fair weather and tornadic.

Tornadic waterspouts are basically tornadoes that have formed over the water. If they were to make landfall, they would be considered tornadoes. Fair weather waterspouts happen on calmer days. these actually form at the surface, and climb all the way up to cloud-level.

Crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays

Near sunrise or sunset, rays of sunshine overshadowed by clouds can produce stunning rays that seem to cut through the sky. These are called crepuscular rays. These happen when dust or haze helps scatter light towards the observer.

The rays all converge at the rising or setting sun. Sometimes, in a more rare phenomenon, anti-crepuscular rays can cross across the sky to the opposite horizon.

Seiches and massive waves

Wild waves on Lake Michigan at Grand Haven. (Oct. 19, 2015)

The biggest waves on Lake Michigan are generated when cold air rages over a warm lake. Crashing waves can grow to be more than 10 feet.

One big, giant wave can form on Lake Michigan in a phenomenon called a seiche. A seiche happens when there is a dramatic change in atmospheric pressure across the lake. Water from one shore line is pushed in a surge to the other side of the lake, like water sloshing back and forth in a bathtub. There have been cases of quick water rises of up to 8 feet from a seiche.

Mammatus clouds
Michelle Mackinac Island Mammatus 10 12 15

Thunderstorms are full of turbulent motion. On the underside of the anvil of a thunderstorm, pouches of moisture can sink down into these jaw-dropping clouds. While mammatus clouds themselves aren’t dangerous, they often mean a thunderstorm is nearby. Some of the most spectacular mammatus clouds form on the underside of severe storms.

Ice formations: Caves, pancakes and mountains

An ice cave off Lake Michigan. (Feb. 19, 2015)

Winter temperatures in West Michigan can dip down below zero with wind chills as cold as 30 below some seasons. Harsh winters can lead to some dazzling ice formations. The lakeshore is a hotbed for icy scenes.

Lighthouses often are coated in spray allowing icicles to coat their surfaces for months at a time. The beach holds waves of rolling ice balls and eventually mountains of ice and snow that stretch along the shoreline as the water hits the land.

In some places, these mounds of ice can form spectacular, but dangerous ice caves that require a lot of care and caution to visit. Inland lakes and channels produce pancakes of ice in choppy waters.

Pancake ice generic

Mirages on Lake Michigan

A mirage of the Chicagao skyline on Lake Michigan.

Quiet spring days on Lake Michigan are perfect for mirages to form, tricking spectators on the lakeshore with images of buildings or upside-down ships floating in the sky.

Late April into May, warm air across cold water can bend light which then bump or flip images on the horizon. The most common mirage seen on Lake Michigan is that of a floating Chicago skyline flipped completely upside down.

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