Friday, March 31, 2023

On a foggy morning

Buffleheads and Steam Fog, Sammamish River, Redmond, Washington

Think of winter weather and icicles and freshly fallen snow may be the first things that come to mind. But for me, it also means fog.

Cold, clear nights can often be followed by spectacular foggy sunrises. At first light, fog can rise off the surface of a lake. And it can vanish within minutes of the sun clearing the horizon.

When I took a weather class back in college, I was told the phenomenon is called steam fog, but it goes by many names. Sea smoke. Evaporation fog. Frost smoke.

It develops when a light breeze carries cold air over water that’s relatively warm. The warmer the air is, the more water vapor it can carry. So, when that warm air is chilled suddenly, some of the water vapor condenses and becomes visible. While this post is about standing on the shore of a lake on an ice-cold morning, it’s the same phenomenon that makes a hot cup of coffee steam.

In the final weeks of winter, I got to watch the fog develop and dissipate on Lake Sammamish, a large freshwater lake not far from Seattle. I arrived in a county park about an hour before sunrise, expecting to do some birding. But when I saw the potential for fog, I hiked through the forest and to the lake’s edge.

As a photographer, there are a few reasons to appreciate the fog. For one, it helps simplify images. It hides clutter. On a foggy morning, this urban lake can appear like pristine wilderness. You can’t see the houses that line the banks on the other side.

Beaver Crossing River in Fog, Redmond, Washington

But I also find the experience relaxing. Everything feels more intimate. As a beaver swims back and forth in front of me, it feels like it’s just the two of us. I can’t see anything or anyone else. Eventually, we’re joined by group of bufflehead ducks, but it still feels like we’re at an exclusive, invitation-only event.

I’m taking photos, but also treasuring the few moments of solitude. The fog is thickest just before sunrise, when the breeze kicks up and mixes the frigid air with the moist air. But as the sun rises and climbs in the sky, the temperature warms and more and more of the fog disappears.

Soon a giant flock of coots swims past. Canada geese honk as they fly by. Joggers start to hit the trails.

The moment of solitude has passed. And with the arrival of spring, I suspect much of the fog has, too.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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