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Lake-Effect Snow Blasting Great Lakes Region

By Nick Wiltgen
Published: December 12, 2013

In the wake of Winter Storm Dion, a frigid air mass is setting off the season's heaviest lake-effect snows to date across parts of the Great Lakes region.

(MORE: Current Winter Weather Alerts | Winter Weather Ticker)

Background

Western Great Lakes Radar

Western Great Lakes Radar

Western Great Lakes Radar

Western Great Lakes Radar
Background

Eastern Great Lakes Radar

Eastern Great Lakes Radar

Eastern Great Lakes Radar

Eastern Great Lakes Radar
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Cold Thursday

Cold Thursday

Cold Thursday

Cold Thursday
Background

Western Great Lakes

Western Great Lakes

Western Great Lakes

Western Great Lakes
Background

Eastern Great Lakes

Eastern Great Lakes

Eastern Great Lakes

Eastern Great Lakes

As cold winds blow across the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, they are picking up moisture. That moisture, in turn, is being wrung out on the lee side of the lakes in the form of locally intense bands of snow.

Through Thursday night, very cold air will be crossing the open lakes, where water temperatures are in the mid 30s to low 40s. The temperature difference between the air and water has created instability in the atmosphere, allowing moist air near the lake surface to rise, forming clouds and snow squalls.

(INTERACTIVE: Great Lakes Radar)

"Fetch" is the technical term for the distance over which wind crosses open water. When the wind blows down the long axis of one of the Great Lakes, snowfall potential is maximized on the lee side of that lake. In this case, three areas have a favorable fetch:

  • East of Lake Ontario over the Tug Hill Plateau in upstate New York, north of Syracuse
  • East of Lake Erie over southwest New York
  • East of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay over Ontario province of Canada, as a long fetch of wind crosses Lake Superior and northern Lake Huron

Within the U.S., the heaviest snow totals are expected to be found east of Lake Ontario, where the favorable fetch and the sharp rise in elevation east of the lake will contribute to storm total accumulations of over 4 feet on the Tug Hill Plateau by Friday. As of early Thursday, 44 inches of snow had piled up east of Lake Ontario in Redfield, Oswego County. Another 44 inches of snow was also recorded about a mile outside village of Constableville, in Lewis County, N.Y., as of Thursday afternoon. 

While wind directions are now a bit more variable, there will still be periods of heavy snow squalls east of Lake Ontario Thursday night and even into Friday. Additional snowfall could total 1 to 2 feet east of Lake Ontario in the Tug Hill Plateau into early Friday.

(FORECAST: Syracuse | Watertown | Lowville)

Off of Lake Erie, snow totals so far have been greater than 2 feet to the south of Buffalo. Overnight Thursday, the snow bands from Lake Erie are expected to shift back to the south — out of the Buffalo metro area.  A Lake-Effect Snow Warning is in effect for the Buffalo area until 1 p.m. Friday. So keep that in mind as you venture out in the morning.

(FORECAST: Buffalo, N.Y.Jamestown, N.Y.)

For Lower Michigan, the dominant westerly winds will blow perpendicular to Lake Michigan's axis, leading to multiple bands of less intense lake-effect snow. Still, snow and blowing snow will reduce visibilities especially along and west of U.S. Highway 131, as is typical of this kind of setup.

(FORECAST: Traverse City | Grand Rapids)

While wind directions will become more variable across the western Great Lakes on Friday, the air will still be cold enough for periodic lake-effect snow showers, though they may not be as well organized.

Across this entire region, the very cold conditions will lead to snow-covered and icy secondary roads and side streets, and even well-traveled and well-treated roadways may have slick spots. Drive with caution and have a winter weather survival kit with you if you are traveling longer distances between cities.

(MORE: Winter Safety Tips)

MORE: Winter Storm Dion Photos

A woman walks past Independence Hall during a winter snowstorm, Dec. 10, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


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