Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:18 PM GMT on January 23, 2013
A classic January North American cold wave continues to bring bitter cold to much of Eastern Canada and the Midwest and Northeast U.S., and heavy lake effect snows to the shores of the Great Lakes. The intense cold was centered near the Ontario/Quebec border this Wednesday morning, where a numbingly low temperature of -45°F (-43°C) was observed at Rouyn, Quebec. The 2 mph wind created a wind chill of -54°F (-48°C). One other station in Canada, Pointe Claveau, Quebec also reported a wind chill of -54°F, thanks to a temperature of -19°F (-28°C) and a wind of 38 mph. In the U.S., below-zero temperatures were recorded Wednesday morning in eleven states east of the Rockies. The coldest air was centered over Northern Maine, where the temperature plummeted to -36°F (-37°C) at Estcourt Station. No doubt the most fun place to be in all of North America this morning was on top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, where the temperature of -35°F (-37°C) combined with a wind of 69 mph to create a truly astonishing wind chill of -85°F (-65°C)!
The weather was a bit less extreme, but nonetheless notably cold, in Washington DC, which bottomed out at 15°F this morning--the coldest it has been there in nearly four years, since March 3, 2009. DC hit a high of just 32°F on Tuesday--the first high temperature of 32° or below in DC since January 22, 2012. The forecast calls for DC to remain below freezing for a 6-day period. According to Ian Livingston of the Capital Weather Gang, the last time D.C. had more than four consecutive days below freezing was during the winter of 2004 - 2005, when the city had a 6-day below-freezing streak. Here in Southeast Michigan where I live, it got below zero for the first time in nearly two years on Tuesday. During my late afternoon cross-country ski adventure on the frozen lake that I live by, I alternated between marveling at the beauty of the swirling "snow devils" kicked up by the gusts of 20 mph, and quailing before their brutal impact in the 7°F cold. I prefer it about 20° warmer for my cross-country ski adventures, thank you!
Figure 1. True-color MODIS satellite image of Tuesday's lake effect snowstorms taken at 3:20 pm EST January 22, 2013. The most concentrated band of snow was affecting the east shore of Lake Ontario (far right of image) near Oswego, New York. Up to 32" of snow fell in 24 hours in this band. Note the thin streaks of snow to the southwest of Lake Michigan in north central Illinois. According the the National Weather Service in Chicago, these bands of snow were lake-effect induced, but not from Lake Michigan--the snow was due to cold air flowing over warm waters in power plant cooling ponds. Image credit: NASA.
The frigid Arctic air blasting over the unusually warm Great Lakes have created more than a foot of lake effect lake effect snows in the lees of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan. Bennetts Bridge, in Oswego County, New York, got a truly prodigious dumping from a Lake Ontario snow band--32" of snow in the 24 hours ending at 7 am Tuesday. As of 9 am EST Wednesday, here were the top snow amounts so far from this lake effect snow event:
38" Fulton, NY
36.5" Phoenix, NY (7 miles NNE)
32" Bennetts Bridge, NY
24.8" Lacona, NY
24.8" Ripley, NY
19" Pulaski, NY
18" Sterling, NY
18" Camden, NY
13" Perrysburg, NY
12" Sinclairville, NY
12" Collins, NY
Snow on the ground:
14.5" Kirtland, OH
13.5" Montville, OH
16" Fairview, PA
16" Franklin Center, PA
13" Erie, PA (6 miles SW of town)
According to wunderground's weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, some world-record point snowfalls from the Great Lakes region include:
7” in 30 minutes at West Seneca, NY on Dec. 2, 2010
12” in 1 hour at Copenhagen, New York on Dec. 2, 1966
17.5” in 2 hours at Oswego, New York on Jan. 26, 1972
22” in 3 hours at Valparaiso, Indiana on Dec. 18, 1981
51” in 16 hours at Bennetts Bridge, New York on Jan. 17-18, 1959
77” in 24 hours at Montague Township on the Tug Hill Plateau of New York on Jan. 11-12, 1997
Although the current Arctic air outbreak is severe, it has broken very few cold temperature records. No airport weather stations east of the Rockies set minimum low temperature records for the date on either Monday or Tuesday, though a number of stations did set their record for the coldest maximum temperature for the date Tuesday. These stations included Marquette, MI (-3°) , Flint, MI (10°), Muskegon, MI (10°), Dayton, OH (15°), and South Bend, IN (9°). The place to be Tuesday was the Southwest U.S., where Phoenix (81°), Tucson (81°), and San Diego (80°) all set record highs for the date.
Heavy lake effect snows are increased by warm waters, lack of ice
This week's exceptional lake effect snows were substantially increased by near-record warm Great Lakes water temperatures. These conditions were caused by the fact that 2012 was the warmest year on record over much of the Great Lakes region. According to NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), water temperatures averaged over Lake Ontario are currently about 3°F above average, and range from 2 - 3°F warmer than average over Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron. Lake Erie, which is shallow and heats up and cools down relatively quickly, is only about 0.2°F above average. Warm air holds more water vapor, and the largest lake effect snow storms tend to occur early in November and December when the lakes are at their warmest, and there is more moisture available to make heavy snow. If the lakes are frozen, they generate very little in the way of lake effect snow, since little moisture can escape upwards from the ice. At the beginning of this week, ice cover on the Great Lakes was below average, which helped generate a larger lake effect snow event than usual for January. Ice cover on North America's Great Lakes--Superior, Michigan, Huron, Ontario, and Erie--has declined 71% since 1973, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Climate by researchers at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. The biggest loser of ice during the 1973 - 2010 time period was Lake Ontario, which saw an 88% decline in ice cover. During the same time period, Superior lost 79% of its ice, Michigan lost 77%, Huron lost 62%, and Erie lost 50%. The loss of ice is due to warming of the lake waters, which could be due to a combination of global warming and natural cycles, the researchers said. Winter air temperatures over the lower Great Lake increased by about 2.7°F (1.5°C) from 1973 - 2010, and by 4 - 5°F (2.3 - 2.7°C) over the northern Lakes, including Lake Superior. Lake Superior's summer surface water temperature warmed 4.5°F (2.5°C) over the period 1979 - 2006 (Austin and Colman 2007). During the same period, Lake Michigan warmed by about 3.3°F (1.7°C), Lake Huron by 4.3°F (2.4°C), and Lake Erie showed almost no warming. The amount of warming of the waters in Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan is higher than one might expect, because of a process called the ice-albedo feedback: when ice melts, it exposes darker water, which absorbs more sunlight, warming the water, forcing even more ice to melt. This sort of vicious cycle is also largely responsible for the recent extreme loss of Arctic sea ice in summer. The loss of Great Lakes ice has allowed much more water to evaporate in winter, resulting in lower lake levels. As I blogged about last week, water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were at their lowest December water levels on record, and are predicted to set an all-time low by March.
Figure 2. Current Great Lakes ice coverage on January 23, 2013 (top) compared to the average Great Lakes ice coverage during 1973 - 2002 for the January 22 - 28 time period (bottom). This year's near-record warm water temperatures led to below-average ice coverage on the lakes until mid-January, but this week's cold blast has helped them catch up to near-normal ice cover. Image credit: Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL).
Andrew Freedman of Climate Central has an excellent post on how this week's cold blast was triggered by a warming of the stratosphere that began in early January.
Wunderground's Lee Grenci has detailed description on how these Sudden Stratospheric Warming events occur.
My post last week, Drought predicted to continue though April; record low Lake Michigan water levels.
Austin, J. A., and S. Colman, 2007, "Lake Superior summer water temperatures are increasing more rapidly than regional air temperatures: A positive ice-albedo feedback," Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L06604, doi:10.1029/2006GL029021.
Wang, J., X. Bai, H. Hu, A.H. Clites, M.C. Colton, and B.M. Lofgren, 2012, "Temporal and spatial variability of Great Lakes ice cover, 1973-2010," Journal of Climate 25(4):1318-1329 (DOI:10.1175/2011JCLI4066.1)
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