In paradox-like fashion, winter is the one season of the year where the harsher its conditions become the more spectacular beauty it renders.
Winter’s icy grip can be gentle enough to coax moisture-laden clouds into yielding a treasure-trove of crystal flakes, yet powerful enough to arrest the fidgety reaches of the tide in a frozen state of brine.
But there is one frosty scene during winter – Arctic sea smoke, that requires just the right mixture of bone-chilling conditions before it manifests its wispy countenance upon the surface of the sea.
This vaporous curiosity often appears when temperatures plummet to single digits and wind chills make one think twice about venturing out to spend a moment’s time near water’s edge.
On the morning of January 4, 2012, Arctic air from Canada dipped down over the Maine coast and reminded Mainers that our moderate winter may soon be but a memory. The sting of this cold air mass was both stark and encompassing, quickly transforming the rocky coastline into a frozen wasteland.
However, it was such bitter conditions that set the stage for the riveting sea smoke to appear at dawn, creating grand theatre with nary an audience to admire its delightful spectacle.
The meteorological explanation for Arctic sea smoke involves a number of factors that include air and water temperature, dew point and relative humidity, but the science behind this winter phenomenon matters little when the beauty of this dancing vapor appears in its entire splendor.
From my vantage point at the Rockland Breakwater on this fourth day of the New Year, it was as if the sea smoke dare not take up residency inside the protected waters of the harbor, but chose instead to glide and pirouette on the shoulders of the wind along the open expanses of Penobscot Bay and beyond.
All the while a thick cloudbank seemed determined to delay the radiance of sunrise, perching itself directly atop the horizon, but its puffy presence could not rise to the heights of morning’s brilliance on this day.
As it is, the sun is no friend to Arctic sea smoke as it eventually heats-up the air and causes the vapor to dissipate. However, for a brief interval during its early morning ascension, the sun will soak the sea smoke with rich color ensuring the vapor’s final curtain call is as vivid as it is dramatic.
Not only was that the case on this cold day, the moment was enhanced by the sun’s ability to splash its radiance upon the now by-standing cloudbank. The result of this dousing was nothing less than stunning.
All at once the scene appeared ablaze. It was as if the clouds and sea were burning as fiery colors dazzled the eyes both high and low.
With “flames” engulfing the firmament and Arctic sea smoke reaching up into the air over the glow of a “burning” sea, the winter phenomena took one final bow in epic style before carrying out its graceful exit.
As I watched the show unfold, I was amazed by the sequence of events and how a winter sea could “burn” frigid.
By this time, it wasn’t just the sea that seemed to “burn,” but my skin too as the sting caused by the extended exposure to the icy air on my face and hands finally subdued the moment and forced me into a hasty retreat to warmer confines.