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Lake Effect Snow Totals and Historical Perspective

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

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