A relentless snowstorm buried the Buffalo area of western New York State with more than 5 feet of snow this week. Situated on the shore of Lake Erie, the impressive accumulation was the product of a meteorological phenomenon known as “Lake-Effect Snow.”
Lake-effect snowstorms, according to NOAA, develop when cold air blows across the warmer waters of a large unfrozen lake. The bottom layer of the air mass is warmed by the water and allows it to evaporate moisture, which forms clouds. When the air mass reaches the leeward side of the lake its temperature drops again, because the land is cooler than the water. This releases the water vapor as precipitation and enormous amounts of snow can accumulate. The effect is enhanced if the air is lifted upward by local topography.
With the clouds typically forming in bands, the snowfall is highly localized. Some places can see the snow come down at a rate of more than 5 inches per hour, while others will only get a dusting. The shape of the lake and the prevailing wind direction determines the size and orientation of these bands.
Fetch, the distance wind travels over a body of water, also plays a key role. A fetch of more than 60 miles is needed to produce lake effect snow. In general, the larger the fetch, the greater the amount of precipitation, as more moisture can be picked up by the moving air.
The massive surface area of the Great Lakes in the northern United States make them excellent producers of lake-effect snow. With northwesterly winds prevailing in the region, communities along the southeastern shores of the lakes are often referred to as being in the “Snowbelt.”