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LAKE-EFFECT SNOWSTORMS (Recent and Historical)

By: Christopher C. Burt , 3:48 AM GMT on December 16, 2010

Recent Events

The first half of December saw two remarkable lake-effect snowstorms in New York State (and a third more widespread and typical event December 12-15). The first occurred December 1-3 in the Buffalo area as a result of a persistent flow of cold air from the southwest over Lake Erie. A narrow 12-mile wide band of extremely intense snowfall set up just to the south and east of downtown Buffalo. The maximum total was 42” at Depew (7 miles east of Buffalo) over a 24-hour period ending at 8 a.m. on December 3. West Seneca (about 7 miles southeast of downtown Buffalo) totaled 30” with 7” of this falling in just one 30 minute period between 3:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m. on December 2nd according to local storm spotters. If true, this would be one of the, if not the, most intense point snowfall on record anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, for motorists, a 15-mile section of Interstate-90 passed through the area of intense accumulation resulting in the closure of this major highway for a 12-hour period. Hundreds of travelers were trapped in their vehicles for the duration of the highway closure and the New York State Highway Department became the focus of much criticism concerning their inability to open the road in a more timely fashion.

Snowfall map of December 1-3 lake-effect event. (from NWS Buffalo, NY office)

The second major lake-effect snow centered around the Syracuse, New York region between December 5-9. This time it was caused by a northwesterly wind flow off Lake Ontario. An official 44.3” five-day total (43.2” in four days) was measured at Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport. The weather service at the airport reported an amazing 97 consecutive hours of snowfall ending at 8 a.m. on December 8. Then the snow stopped for only one hour before resuming for another consecutive 23-hour stretch into the morning of December 9th. Storm spotters reported up to 58.2” total accumulation in other parts of the city. The village of Ferner, in Madison County and 20 miles southeast of Syracuse, reported a 50.6” accumulation. Lacona, in perennially snowy Oswego County, reported 51.5”. The Canadian snow belt in Ontario downwind from Lake Huron reported even more fantastic snowfalls including 60” (153cm) at Lucan twenty miles north of the city of London (which recorded a 47.2”/120cm accumulation smashing its previous single-day snowfall record of 22.4”/57cm set on December 7, 1977).

London, Ontario buried under more than three feet of snow on December 8. (photo by Tim Dann)

A third more general lake-effect snowfall affected all the Great Lake snow belts following the record synoptic snowfall over the Upper Midwest (most notable records being the 22.0” in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on December 11th, their all-time 24-hour and single-biggest-snowstorm on record and 17.4” in Minneapolis, a December record). The arctic air blast following the blizzard resulted in significant but not extraordinary lake-effect snows between December 12-15 in northern Indiana (up to 17”), northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania (up to 38” at Corry, Pennsylvania), and in the usual areas of upstate New York (up to 22”).

Historic Lake-effect Snowfalls

So how do these recent events compare to other historical lake-effect snowstorms? Exceptional but, for the most part, not record-breaking believe it or not. The Great Lakes of North America, being the largest fresh water bodies in the world, are unique in producing extraordinary snowfalls of this nature. 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.

(Sorry about this lousy graphic, but all good detailed maps of the snow belts of the U.S.A. and Canada only show either just the U.S.A. snow belts (with accumulation statistics) or just the Canadian snow belts. This is because the Canadians use metric units and the U.S. English units, so a comprehensive map detailing the amounts of snowfall over the entire region are non-existent so far as I am aware).

When conditions are just right, the snow rates during some events are the greatest ever measured on record from anywhere in the world. The 7” in 30 minutes at West Seneca, NY (mentioned above) is an example. (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 world-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 commercial aircraft tipped back onto their tails 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. (NOAA)

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

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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6. Zachary Labe
11:34 AM GMT on December 17, 2010
Fantastic blog! Lake effect snows are my favorite mesoscale weather event to observe despite being located downslop of the Appalachains.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
5. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
6:49 PM GMT on December 16, 2010
Quoting RIDGES:
I am very familiar with lake effect snow living in Marquette. I would like your opinion on how very high lake temps during the summer on Lake Superior this year will have an effect on snow totals this year. I believe the worst winter I lived through was the record year of 2001-2002 when Marquette got over 320", most of it in 2002. I had to shovel the roof 6 times to keep the weight down and had a hand shoveled snow bank outside the house 6 feet tall, 30 feet wide and 90 feet long. Needless to say I had a sore back but arms of steel! Record snowfall for the UP is 355" in Houghton, MI if I remember correctly. Great article!

Indeed, 2001-2002 was Marquette's snowiest season (officially 319.8"). The state record for a season is 391.9" at Delaware (U.P.) during 1978-1979.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
4. bell32ndst
4:01 PM GMT on December 16, 2010
Nice scenes for around Christmas. Made me want to visit for a day or two during one of these storms. Would be magical as a vacation just to appreciate the snow (no burdens of daily life to worry about).
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
2. ncgnto25
1:59 PM GMT on December 16, 2010
Fascinating study here. I am new to the site, but enjoying it. I have relatives in Petoskey and know about the big snows. Wasn't there an outbreak that produced about 147 inches in one storm near Oswego just in the last year or two? Thanks.
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Weather Extremes

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.

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