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



A potentially historic snowstorm is about to plaster some of the continent’s most snow-resistant cities with up to four feet of accumulation. Buffalo and Watertown, NY — two cities on the eastern tips of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, respectively — are in line for an extreme lake effect snow event.

Buffalo’s National Weather Service takes an unusually serious tone in its forecast, writing that the episode could be “crippling.” A period of rapid accumulation of 36 hours, accompanied by thundery snow and a near blizzard, should follow between Thursday and Saturday. The heaviest snowfall is expected late Thursday through Friday evening.

Snowfall rates could become excessive – reaching 2 to 3 inches per hour – exceeding even the fastest shoveler or snow blower. The combination of heavy snow and winds up to 35 mph will significantly reduce visibility.

“Travel will be difficult, if not impossible,” the weather service warned. “Some major roads may temporarily close.”

Liz Jurkowski, a meteorologist with the Buffalo Weather Service, said the bureau is working to get the word out to the local agencies it supports. “It will be a major event,” she told the Post.

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Forecasts are complicated by the localized nature of the lake effect snow, which will fall in bands only a few kilometers wide. Like summer thunderstorms, this means a community could be pounded while a nearby neighborhood remains untouched – except instead of a downpour, by staggering amounts of snow.

Lake effect snow warnings are in effect for generally vulnerable snowbelts downwind of the lakes, with winter storm watches or winter weather advisories in surrounding counties. This is where forecasters are less confident in the twists and turns of the snow band, but have raised alerts to raise awareness of the possibility of larger impacts.

Accumulations should be approximately 2 to 3 feet within Buffalo city limits; however, amounts could reach 4 feet if the main snow band persists, the weather service warned. Just 30 miles south, only 2 to 4 inches likely.

Off Lake Ontario, the heaviest totals will accumulate east of Chaumont and Henderson bays, near and north of Watertown, a town of about 25,000 people in western New York. A general 1 to 3 feet is likelybut more cannot be ruled out.

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

Wild snow instigation is a tenacious high altitude disturbance, or a pocket of freezing air, low pressure, and a spin at altitude. It is tucked into a dip in the jet stream and will be located over the Great Lakes on Thursday. Then it will continue to dip east-southeast, swinging directly over Lake Ontario before crossing into New England.

The positioning of this upper level system will direct a steady stream of westerly-southwesterly winds across the entire lakes fetch. This freezing air blowing lengthwise along the water, unlike water temperatures in the lower 50s, will allow high amounts of moisture to rise into the atmosphere. This will brew 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 global atmospheric pattern that is expected to bury Buffalo and Watertown will also trigger a cold spell in the northeastern United States, with wintry temperatures in stark contrast to the unusual mildness of the previous week.

Jurkowski compared the impending snowstorm to a record-breaking event in mid-November 2014, which dumped up to 88 inches of snow. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, NY, schools were closed for over a week in Buffalo and Interstate 90 was closed. Twenty-six people died from the storm, mostly from heart attacks sustained while shoveling snow. The New York National Guard was brought in to help with snow removal.

“There are [another event of this magnitude] in 2000, we compare it,” Jurkowski said. “Before that, a few little things in the 1980s. They don’t happen very often.

She explained that the heaviest snow will start Thursday night, but the snow band is expected to last through Sunday.

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

Buffalo averages about 90 inches of snow a year, and while residents are used to snowfall, Jurgoswki sought to remind people that it’s on a different level.

“People here know very well that the effects of the lake can [be] very localized and depends on how the wind is blowing, but we’ll all have to be prepared just to be on the safe side,” she said.


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