Western New York, Buffalo braces for ‘crippling’ lake effect snowstorm


A potentially historic snowstorm is set to blanket some of the continent’s most snow-tolerant cities with accumulations of up to 4 feet. Buffalo and Watertown, New York — two cities on the eastern ends of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, respectively — are in line for an extreme lake-effect snow event.

The National Weather Service in Buffalo took an unusually serious tone in its forecast, writing that the episode could be “crippling.” Between Thursday and Saturday, a 36-hour period of rapid accumulation is expected, complete with thundery snow and near-blizzard conditions. The heaviest snow is expected late Thursday through Friday night.

Snowfall levels can become excessive – reaching 2 to 3 inches per hour – outpacing even the fastest shovel or snow plow. The combination of heavy snow and winds gusting up to 35 mph will severely limit visibility.

“Travel will be difficult to impossible,” the weather service warned. “Some major roads may be temporarily closed.”

Liz Yurkowski, a meteorologist with the weather service in Buffalo, said the service is looking to spread the word to the local agencies it supports. “It’s going to be a big event,” she told The Washington Post.

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Complicating forecasts is the localized nature of the lake-effect snow, which will fall in bands only a few miles wide. Like summer thunderstorms, this means one community can be battered while a nearby neighborhood remains untouched — except instead of torrential rain, staggering amounts of snow.

Lake effect snow advisories are in effect for the typically vulnerable snow belts downwind of the lakes, with winter storm watches or winter weather advisories in surrounding counties. This is where forecasters are less confident about the meandering snow band, but have raised warnings to raise awareness of the possibility of greater impacts.

Accumulations are expected to be approx 2 to 3 feet within Buffalo city limits; however, amounts could reach 4 feet if the main snow band holds, the weather service warned. Only 30 miles south, probably only 2 to 4 inches.

Along Lake Ontario, the heaviest amounts will accumulate east of Chaumont and Henderson bays near and north of Watertown, a city of approximately 25,000 in western New York. General 1 to 3 feet is likelyalthough they can no longer be ruled out.

Outside of the two main snow bands, cities including Rochester and Geneva, or further north in Old Forge or Utica, may only see an inch or two of accumulation.

Inciting wild snows is a persistent high-altitude disturbance or pocket of cold air, low pressure, and updrafts. It is nestled in a dip in the jet stream and will be located over the Great Lakes on Thursday. It will then continue to dive east-southeast, looping directly over Lake Ontario before passing through New England.

The positioning of this upper level system will direct a steady flow of west-southwest winds along the length of the lakes. This bone-chilling air blowing lengthwise across the water, as opposed to water temperatures in the low 50s, will allow large amounts of moisture to rise into the atmosphere. This will result in moderate to strong convection or vertical heat transfer; in other words, the same processes that generate summer thunderstorms, except that it will snow.

The same overarching atmospheric setup that’s set to bury Buffalo and Watertown will also unleash a blast of cold across the northeastern United States, with wintry temperatures in stark contrast to the unseasonably mild the week before.

Yurkowski compared the looming snowstorm to a record-breaking event in mid-November 2014, which accumulated up to 88 inches of snow. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, New York, schools were closed for more than a week in Buffalo and Interstate 90 was shut down. Twenty-six people died as a result of the storm, mostly as a result of heart attacks that occurred during the snowfall. The New York National Guard was brought in to help clear the snow.

“There is [another event of this magnitude] in 2000, which we compare it to,” Yurkowski said. “Before that, a few things in the 80s. They are not very common.

She explained that the heaviest snow will begin Thursday night, but the snow band should last until Sunday.

“The group may swing north on Saturday but then head south on Sunday,” she explained, referring to subtle changes in wind patterns. “We’re not just looking at a twelve-hour event or day. It’s been a few days.”

Buffalo averages about 90 inches of snow a year, and while residents are used to snowfall, Jurgoswki tried to remind people that this is a different level.

“People here know pretty well that lake effects can [be] very localized and dependent on how the wind blows, but we’re all going to have to be prepared to be sure,” she said.

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