All Weather News

Showcase: Lake Effect Snow

12 Dec 2009, 6:50 pm

The past few days have been snowy, to say the least, in upstate New York and Michigan. Portions of Michigan saw snow for about 3 straight days–nonstop! New York experienced snowfall rates of over 3 inches an hour. Uncommon? Not really. These are areas that are bombarded with snow every year because of their proximity to the Great Lakes and this kind of snow is specifically known as lake effect snow. Frequently, lake effect snow can bring accumulations of over one foot. For example, between December 8th and 11th (2009) Gaylord, MI had its 2nd largest three day snowfall since 1950 as it received 21.8″ of snow! Which year is #1? 1950. In January of that year, a lake effect snow event produced 24.5″ of snow. Traverse City got pounded with 18.2″ of snow during these 3 days. In Lewis County, New York,  Highmarket almost got 40″ of snow in just a matter of 2 days!

Lake effect snow on radar in New York.
Lake effect snow on radar in New York.

Lake effect snow is produced in the winter when cold winds track along the relatively warmer waters of large bodies of water–lakes, in this case. There are similar effects over salt water which is known as ocean effect or sea effect snow. Condensation begins to occur over the lakes and we frequently see clouds forming. Downwind of the lake, precipitation forms. It doesn’t necessarily have to be snow–there can also be a rain/snow mix. Orographic lift can also further enhance precipitation. This occurs when that surge of moisture encounters higher terrain and is able to gain more lift–creating heavy bursts of snow. It is most common in Michigan, Northwest Pennsylvannia and upstate New York. The reason is that we frequently encounter cold west to northwest winds along the Great Lakes and this is the perfect set up for lake effect snow.

Buffalo, NY after receiving 82.3" of snow on December in 2001.
Buffalo, NY after receiving 82.3" of snow on December in 2001.

In case you’re not impressed with some of the numbers I spit out at you earlier, consider the following. On December 24th of 2001, lake effect snow started up in Buffalo, New York and didn’t cease until December 28th, 2001. The grand total? 82.3″! That’s some heck of a White Christmas. On average, the Tug Hill Plateau receives 300 inches of snow a winter. In February of 2007, 141 inches of snow fell on the Tug Hill. Michigan is another target for lake effect snow. The other biggest “snowbelt” in the United States is in the UP of Michigan, in fact (including the cities of Marquette and Houghton). On average, these areas receive between 250 and 300 inches of snow a season.

Next time you plan awinter  visit out to our nation’s snowbelts, you better be prepared to encounter good ole lake effect snow. Its presence is a given during the winter season!

Susie Martin

WeatherNation meteorologist

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *