BUFFALO, N.Y. -- What's up with the mist?
When the Niagara Parks Commission posed that question back in
2004, the concern was that high-rise hotels on the Canadian side of
Niagara Falls were contributing to the creation of more mist,
obscuring the very view that millions of tourists flock there every
year to see.
The suspicion was that new high-rise buildings were altering
airflow patterns, contributing to a higher, thicker mist plume.
Consultants conducted wind tunnel experiments that seemed to
confirm that mist levels were enhanced by the tall buildings around
the falls, a report that circulated in the Canadian news media.
Now University at Buffalo geologists have determined that the
high-rise hotels are probably not to blame.
"According to our findings, it is unlikely that the buildings at
the falls enhance the mist," said Marcus Bursik, Ph.D., professor
in the Department of Geology in the UB College of Arts and
Sciences, who led the study with several students who were
investigating the plume for their graduate-degree projects.
"Rather, our data show that it's air and water temperature that
control the amount of mist.
"It turns out that the bigger the temperature difference between
the air and the water, the higher and more substantial is the mist
plume and the thicker is the mist at the Falls," he continued.
Bursik, a volcanologist who has studied atmospheric plumes at
volcanoes, noted that plumes, regardless of their origin, have
He was motivated to study the Niagara Falls plume back in
"I started wondering why the plume rose to different heights on
different days," said Bursik, who often can see the plume from his
building on the University at Buffalo's North (Amherst) Campus
about 20 miles away.
According to the data the UB researchers gathered, the plume is
highest during times of the year when the water temperature is
higher than the air temperature, which typically occurs during fall
Bursik explained that in late autumn, even when the air
temperature can fall to about 40 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the
water still remains quite warm, as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit,
conditions that are ideal for a large, high plume.
During the winter, he continued, the temperature of the water
remains at 32 degrees Fahrenheit because it is constantly flowing,
but the air temperature will plunge by twenty or thirty degrees or
"Those temperature differences create more mist flow and a
higher plume," said Bursik.
The perception that there have been more misty days in recent
years may just be related to temperature trends, he noted.
Using a portable weather station adapted for a backpack, a UB
student measured windspeed at the falls to establish airflow and
Calculations also were made using ambient atmospheric
temperature and river-water temperature to make a prediction for
the height of the mist plume.
Actual plume height then was measured on different days using
the Skylon Tower as a reference point.
"The predicted and measured plume heights matched well,
consistent with the notion that the plume is just higher and
thicker when the temperature difference is bigger," said
The researchers will present their findings at UB's annual
Environment and Society Institute Colloquium on April 21. Findings
also were presented during the 36th Binghamton Geomorphology
Symposium held at UB last October.
The research was supported by seed funding from UB.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the
State University of New York.