- Lake-effect snow, which can last from a few minutes to several days, falls in narrow bands of clouds.
- These snows usually only occur in the fall or early winter, before the lakes freeze over.
- The cities of Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester top the national list of snowiest major cities each year.
Places along the south and east sides of the Great Lakes are known to be hit with huge amounts of snow.
When snow piles up in places like Buffalo in western New York or Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, people start talking about the lake effect.
But what exactly is lake effect snow? How’s it going ?
Lake-effect snow, which can last anywhere from minutes to days, develops from narrow bands of cloud that form when cold, dry arctic air passes over a large relatively mild lake.
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Cold air over hot water
As cold air passes over the unfrozen, “warm” waters of the Great Lakes, heat and moisture are transferred to the lowest part of the atmosphere, according to the National Weather Service. The air rises and clouds form and grow in narrow bands that produce 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour or more.
Wind direction is also key in determining which areas will receive lake effect snow. Heavy snow can fall in one place, while the sun can shine just a mile or two in either direction.
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These snows usually only occur in the fall or early winter, before the lakes freeze over. (But if the lakes don’t freeze, lake effect snow can occur throughout winter and into spring.)
Lake Effect Snow Records
How snowy? In the lake-effect portions of western New York, for example, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester top the list of the nation’s snowiest major cities each year, each averaging more than 8 feet per year due to their proximity to Lakes Erie and Ontario.
The three cities compete each winter for the “Golden Snowball”, awarded to the snowiest city in the region.
Almost unimaginable snowfall has occurred in New York thanks to lake effect snow: the small town of Montague, downwind of Lake Ontario, holds the “unofficial” world record for total snowfall in 24 hours of nearly 6½ feet, established January 11-12. , 1997.
And a crazy total of 5 inches of snow was reported once in just 20 minutes in Turin, NY Why crazy? As a general rule, a total of 2-3 inches of snowfall per hour is considered “heavy”.
Sometimes lake effect snow clouds develop enough up and down motion to create thunderstorm snow – a blizzard with thunder and lightning.
Although the heaviest lake effect snow in the United States falls around the Great Lakes, it also falls in other places, especially near the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
People who live where lake effect snow is common enjoy prodigious snowfall: As one Syracuse resident said in the book “Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds and Recurrent Snows”: “We don’t have any natural disasters. We never have to worry about hurricanes. Very rarely a flood. I can live with the occasional blizzard. Then you can go out and ski.
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