Holy smoke!

Last week, social media was ablaze with some unique pictures. It wasn’t just the usual cute kids and photos of fabulous food on the interwebs, but something else that rose above the ordinary. 

Many favorite Island photographers were getting their best shots: Alison Shaw, Tim Johnson, Mark Lovewell and those Vineyard Colors folks, among others, were in hot pursuit. They captured something truly special out on the water: sea smoke.

Sea smoke, also called sea fog, frost smoke or steam fog is not an everyday winter happening. It takes just right conditions to create the beauty of fog rising over the water. 

Very cold air is the instigator of this weather phenomenon. Sea smoke forms when light wind of exceptionally cold air moves over warmer water, and, when the air becomes saturated, water vapor forms fog.

This layer of fog seems to hang just above the water line, low above the water. Irish author and ship’s doctor Henry De Vere Stacpoole described it quite expressively: “A great sea fog is not homogenous — its density varies: it is honeycombed with streets, it has its caves of clear air, its cliffs of solid vapour, all shifting and changing place with the subtlety of legerdemain.”

Although typically the fog remains close to the water’s surface, nature does have a few weather tricks up her sleeve. Sometimes the smoke rises vertically high above the water in an elongated spiral. This form is known as a steam devil if it is short lived (and not attached to a cloud) and is called a waterspout (or condensation funnel) if it lingers longer and does reach all the way up to the clouds. Though waterspouts are more common in warmer areas, they can occur in the colder regions too.

Residents of San Francisco, better known for its incessant fogs, found eloquence in their predicament of persistent haze. An 1899 edition of a California neighborhood newspaper illuminated their fogginess, suggesting that theirs were the best kind: “fresh, sparkling fogs, impregnated with the life-giving salt of the ocean.”

Over on the other side of the pond, sea fog is found by a different name during a different season. Summer beachgoers in England might be plagued by “fret,” or “sea fret,” which is a fog that occurs when the warm air goes over the cold sea. In Scotland, these same conditions cause “haar,” or the North Sea Haar, again instigated by the cold North Sea meeting the warmer summer air.

No matter where you encounter this fog, its short-lived nature will always cause it to quickly go up in smoke. But not to worry, in this case where there is smoke, there isn’t always fire.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.  

More photos of sea smoke on the Vineyard.