Lake effect snow

A deer peering through a tiny opening in the snow covered forest.

Living in Western New York automatically means dealing with snow for four to five months out of the year. On top of that, residents have become accustomed to the common phenomenon known as lake effect snow. The news channels love to chat about lake effect and are quite good at keeping residents informed. They are usually accurate as to when the storm will hit and how much snow we should expect. Of course there have been exceptions such as the “October Storm” in 2006 and “Snowvember” in 2014. These extreme storms came quick and dumped feet upon feet of snow. Cars were buried, roofs collapsed, and thousands of people were stranded on the NYS Thruway.

Being a native to this region, I remember where I was and what I was doing during the “October Storm”. My extended family lived in Derby, New York, only 15 miles from where my house was located. My parents and sister went out to help with shoveling efforts and digging out cars. When they called me and told me about the crazy weather they were experiencing, I looked outside and I saw a calm early morning scene with a few flurries slowly falling to the ground. In that span of 15 miles, the weather had turned from a slight chill to a full blown snowy catastrophe. Just one example of how extreme and localized a lake effect snow storm can be.

I am very familiar with lake effect and its relentless accumulation. I am generally comfortable driving in it and sure do enjoy the powder days on the slopes. I am almost proud of lake effect snow; as it is, only a handful of other areas in the world experience it. The Great Lakes, the west coasts of northern Japan, and the eastern shores off the Hudson Bay are a few others that bear the brunt of lake effect. It is the pièce de ré·sis·tance of meteorology, just the right ingredients such as temperature and humidity can turn into something amazing. It is a special event only we get to see and experience. Even if you hate the snow and shoveling, there is no denying the astonishment a lake effect storm can bring; you go to work and you can see grass but by the time you clock out, every inch has been buried. It can leave you dumbfounded.

How does lake effect snow come to be? How does Mother Nature decide when and where to drop 48 inches of snow in a day? After a low pressure system sweeps through the area, cold air from the Arctic is then free to rush over “warm” and ice-free Lake Erie. At its broadest point, Lake Erie is 57 miles wide; that is 57 miles for the air to pick up moisture. As it warms and humidity increases, it rises. This is when the clouds begin to form and if cold enough down below, snow will precipitate as it cools. When it finally hits land, the fast traveling weather system now begins to slow down. This is because there is more friction over land than over water. All of the water the cold air picked up now gets dumped on those areas just inland east of the lake. We will continue to observe lake effect snow until the lake freezes over. Once the lake is frozen, the air is no longer able to draw up moisture and lake effect snow storms are not possible. This is great news for us because Lake Erie is the smallest and shallowest of all the Great Lakes, so we can expect it to be frozen around February. Although with fluctuating temperatures in recent years, the lake has not frozen over. Meaning we can have lake effect snow all the way until April, if temperatures permit.

There are other areas in the country that accumulate more snow than we do, but lake effect is usually not the culprit. Higher elevation and colder temperatures deliver snow to the mountains in the West. For being less than 1000′ feet above sea level, Western New York can see up to 88 inches of snow in an average winter; that’s pretty impressive. In winter of 2017-18 the national weather service issued their report which stated there were 12 lake effect events and a total of 112.2 inches of snow in Buffalo, ranking it the 20th snowiest in the country. The same year Aspen, CO which is 8000′ above sea level had 178.8 inches of snow; we’re not too far behind.

Winter forest.

Even though there are copious amounts of shoveling and tricky driving conditions to be expected, lake effect snow is something we as Western New Yorkers can be proud of. I have seen t-shirts that say “I survived Snowvember” and “I survived Snowvertime” after the Bills played in a lake effect snow storm on Dec 10, 2017 with a total of 17 inches falling during the game. No matter what pun we come up with, we will always be honored to have lake effect snow and share the stories with friends, kids, and grandkids.

For me, I always wonder what the creatures do outside when the snow accumulates so rapidly. Luckily a lot of birds migrate, mammals grow thick fur to combat the cold, and a handful hibernate through it all. Lake effect is an impressive natural phenomenon, and I personally don’t mind the snow days and abundant amounts of hot chocolate I consume. Going out into the woods after a lake effect snow storm is one of the most peaceful experiences. There is no noise and everything is tucked under a blanket of snow. Nature is sleeping; exhausted from the snowstorm. Invest in a pair of snowshoes and you will discover a whole new world.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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