Lake Effect Snow Totals and Historical Perspective

By: Christopher C. Burt , 7:55 PM GMT on January 22, 2013

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Historic Lake-effect Snowfalls

The Great Lakes of North America, being the largest fresh water bodies in the world, are unique in producing extraordinary snowfalls. The fact that they remain mostly ice-free all winter (except for Lake Superior) means that these snowfalls may occur during any winter month, although it is usually in the late fall (November and December) when the greatest accumulations occur since the lake waters are still relatively warm and able to provide more vapor to the atmosphere.


The typical Great Lakes snow belts.

When conditions are just right, the snow rates during some events are the greatest ever measured on record from anywhere in the world. 7” of snow fell in 30 minutes at West Seneca, NY (just east of Buffalo) on December 2, 2010 between 3:30-4:00 p.m. according to local snow reports. Of course, It is conceivable that snow rates just as great may occur in the high altitudes of Washington’s Olympic Mountains or other high elevations of the coastal mountains of British Columbia and Alaska, but there are no actual measurements of such.

Other U.S.-record point snowfalls from the Great Lakes region include:

12.0” in 1 hour at Copenhagen, New York on Dec. 2, 1966
17.5” in 2 hours at Oswego, New York on Jan. 26, 1972
22.0” in 3 hours at Valparaiso, Indiana on Dec. 18, 1981
51.0” in 16 hours at Benetts Bridge, New York on Jan. 17-18, 1959

…and the granddaddy of all snowfalls: the 77.0” in 24 hours reported in Montague Township on the Tug Hill Plateau of New York on Jan. 11-12, 1997. This would be the world 24-hour snowfall record (surpassing the 75.8” at Silver Lake, Colorado on April 14-15, 1921) if the observer had made his measurements slightly more exacting. Unfortunately, he made one too many measurements during the period of snowfall and the record was consequently rejected as official by the National Weather Service’s Snowfall Evaluation Committee. The storm total was 95” over a three day period. At times the snow fell so heavily that snowplow operators could not see further than ten feet in front of their vehicles.


A photo of the remarkable accumulation in Montague Township, New York on the morning of January 12, 1997. (photo by Cheryl Boughton)

Buffalo’s single greatest lake-effect (for that matter any) snowstorm occurred December 24-28, 2001 when 81.5” accumulated at the official city weather service site at the airport. The same event also affected the Lake Michigan snow belt around Petoskey, Michigan where a state-record for a single snowstorm dropped 85.0” between December 23-29.


A remarkable aerial view taken from a local news helicopter of an intense snow squall enveloping Buffalo during February 2007. Four inches of snow fell in a very short period of time as the squall passed over the city. (from snopes.com)

In October 2006 a freak early-season lake effect snowstorm dropped up to two feet of heavy wet snow at the Buffalo airport resulting in the incredible sight of a commercial aircraft tipped back onto its tail as a result of the weight of the snow!


(photo by John Wichrowski)

New York State’s record for a single snowstorm buried Oswego under 102” of snow between January 27-31, 1966 (the same lake-effect event that resulted in Syracuse’s greatest 4-day total of 44.6”). Oswego has a long history of extraordinary snowfalls including one in February 1856 that buried the town with four to ten feet of snow with drifts as deep as thirty feet according to local reports (see David Ludlum’s Early American Winters: 1821-1870 page 226-227 for more about this amazing event).

Other Great Lakes locations that regularly record phenomenal lake-effect snows include the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline counties, and the hills of northeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania just south and east of Lake Erie. The state greatest-single-snowstorm records for Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (as well as Michigan and New York) are all the result of lake-effect snowfalls:



The Upper Peninsula of Michigan hosts the snowiest places in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains (aside from the summit of Mt. Washington) thanks to persistent snow squalls blowing off Lake Superior and unloading their precipitation over the hills of the Keweenaw Peninsula and the Huron Mountains west of Marquette. A dot on the map in this area named Herman takes top honors with an average of 236” of snow each winter season (Mt. Washington averages 310”).



A satellite image of heavy lake-effect snow bands impacting both upper and lower Michigan on December 5, 2000. Wikipedia image.

Other lakes in the United States that regularly produce accumulating lake-effect snow squalls include The Great Salt Lake of Utah and Lake Champlain bordering Vermont and New York. In Canada Lake Winnipeg and the other large Canadian lakes produce modest lake-effect snowfalls early in the season before they freeze over.

For a good overview on the causes of lake-effect snowfalls and other places around the world that experience the phenomena see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake-effect_snow

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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8. REwonk
9:42 PM GMT on January 25, 2013
I was in Buffalo during that record 2001 snowstorm. I thought I was picking up my then-girlfriend at the airport--I had no idea that the airport was already closed (I didn't have a cellphone back then).

I left Rochester on the morning of 12/27, heading for Buffalo. It was a beautiful, clear day. Things stayed that way until close to Buffalo, when it clouded over. Then it started to snow. Then the snow started to get deep. By the time I got to the airport, I had to bury my car in a snow-filled parking space and waded waist-deep into the terminal, only to discover that I was there for no reason. Of course, I had no hat or gloves.

According to The Buffalonian, "In 24 hours, 35.4 inches of snow fell from 6 a.m. Thursday December 27th, 2001 to 6 a.m. Friday December 28th, 2001." By the time I left (maybe a half hour after arriving), the highway east was closed, and I knew I had to hustle to avoid getting trapped. I picked an eastbound road at random and just kept driving, slow but sure. Eventually I made it back to Rochester, but the roads closed down behind me, and the city was closed to traffic for days.
Member Since: May 26, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
7. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
4:43 PM GMT on January 23, 2013
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
6. brandonlubin
11:10 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
wow
Member Since: March 12, 2010 Posts: 26 Comments: 4
5. VelvetHog
9:42 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
I'm sorry, but I can't remember what year for sure. It was either 2000, 2001 or 2002 (I think 2001). Mass City, Michigan (a wide spot in the road) received 98" of snow in the span of 24 hours. I had driven through Mass City just before the snow and then again a few days after. Incredible! There was a two or three sentence story about it at the time reported by NPR. I have lately tried to find a reference to this story, but have been unsuccessful.
Member Since: January 22, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
4. mike4him
9:24 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
Ouch. That's all I have to say. I've lived in the machine before on each side of Lake Michigan, but in Michigan getting much more.
Member Since: September 21, 2001 Posts: 14 Comments: 4
3. Hughbeehayve
8:30 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
Good article. Climatologists predicted there might be more precipitation than usual. They issued a warning at the beginning of the winter season that there is a lot of moisture in the atmosphere which is the result of the year long heat wave melting glaciers and polar ice in the northern hemisphere. If you combine that with the facts reported here, everything begins making sense.
Member Since: March 5, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
2. OSUBUCKEYE1
8:23 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
WOW! Awesome stuff! I will never complain about the 15" or so in a day that we get from time to time in Allegan County, Michigan. Well, maybe.
Member Since: February 4, 2005 Posts: 1 Comments: 2
1. Some1Has2BtheRookie
8:22 PM GMT on January 22, 2013
Thanks, Chris. That is a LOT of snow during these events. All I know is that I am not shoveling this new snow.
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 4772

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.