Steam devils, otherwise known as "Arctic outbreak vortices", are whirls of steam that form when very cold air moves over open water. They vary in size, appearing most often as thin and rope-like, but occasionally are seen as large wide columns with a clear central core extending several hundred metres in height. They appear white when the sun is shining on them or dark grey when under cloud cover. Steam devils are associated with "Arctic sea smoke" which appears as steam forming over the water. Steam devils become more frequent the colder and windier it gets. 


Each winter, the public often mistaken steam devils for waterspouts. This occurs when a steam devil extends to a cloud base. The main difference between steam devils and waterspouts is that steam devils are much weaker than waterspouts. Steam devils do not exhibit the characteristic "spray ring" that waterspouts do near the surface of the water. This spray ring is an indicator of the violently rotating air in the waterspout. It should be noted that waterspouts do occur in the winter ("winter waterspout") during Arctic outbreaks, but are rarely seen because they are usually embedded in snowsqualls. The winter of 1993-94 was documented as being one of the largest steam devil outbreaks over the Great Lakes. Hundreds of steam devils were sighted along with the rare winter waterspout.


On a final note, steam devils are not a threat to the public.