Geography in the News: Lake-Effect Snow

Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University

Lake-effect snow has arrived around the Great Lakes as winter has finally come to the Midwest.

During a single 1995 December storm, Buffalo, N.Y., received 40 inches of snow. Although this was a heavy snow, it was not a record for Buffalo. Buffalo’s geographic location places it in position to receive some of the Eastern United States’ heaviest urban snowfalls. The ring of snowfall that occurs around the east side of the Great Lakes is a phenomenon called lake‑effect snow.

Buffalo is located on the eastern shore of Lake Erie in western New York State. The city is on a relatively flat glacial lake plain, to the northwest of the Allegheny portion of the Appalachian Plateau. The plain formed when a remnant of the Pleistocene continental glacier blocked the northern drainage of the St. Lawrence River, backing up water into a huge ice-dammed lake..

           The lake finally spilled through the Mohawk Valley into the Hudson River Valley and exited at present‑day New York City. The valley became a glacial spillway. Today it is a broad, flat valley occupied by the tiny Mohawk River.

Buffalo’s growth was stimulated by its location at the eastern end of Lake Erie and at the western end of the Mohawk Valley. The Erie Canal, following the Mohawk, was completed in 1825 and served as a water link between New York City and Buffalo. Freight rates for shipping between Buffalo and New York City immediately dropped by 95 percent and travel time between the two cities decreased by more than half. This meant that nearly all goods traveling by land or water between New York City and the Midwest had to go through Buffalo.

Despite deep snows and winter winds from the lake, Buffalo ‑‑ today a city of  more than 621,000 people ‑‑ grew and prospered.

One look at a map of the region confirms that Buffalo is the only major city on an eastern shore of one of the Great Lakes. In fact, only a few small towns are found on the east sides of the lakes. Snowy winters and high lake winds are common in these locations, largely as a result of a lake‑effect.

Lake‑effect snows result from cold, dry winter winds sweeping from Canada across unfrozen lakes. As they cross open water, the winds evaporate some moisture and become warmer. When the moist air reaches the east sides of the lakes, the air is forced to rise abruptly over the land and the colder air above the land. The results are exceptional snowfalls in bands along the southeast sides of the lakes, often accompanied by the unusual winter phenomena of thunder and lightning.

The most dramatic effect normally extends up to 70 miles (113 km) inland from the lakes, but bands of light snow and flurries may extend as far away as the ski resort at Snowshoe, W.Va., on the Appalachian Plateau.

Most winter air from Canada is very dry and generally brings only flurries, except on the leeward sides of the unfrozen Great Lakes. Moisture for most heavy snowfalls in the Eastern United States ‑‑ outside of the areas having lake‑effect snows ‑‑ comes from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Lake‑effect snows around the Great Lakes begin to cease when the Great Lakes mostly freeze over, usually by February. An interesting feature about the freezing of lakes is that all the water in the lake must cool to 39 degrees F (4 C) before the surface can cool to 32 F (0 C) and freeze. The result is that a shallow lake–such as Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five lakes–freezes over earlier and more frequently than the other Great Lakes.

Buffalo’s average annual snowfall is nearly 100 inches (2.5 m), but some surprising snowfalls have taken place in lake‑effect locations. For example, Oswego, near the east end of Lake Ontario, received 101 inches (2.56 m) in five days in 1966. Buffalo received 48 inches (1.2 m) in one day in 1937. During the blizzard of 1977, Buffalo received over 120 inches (3 m) by the end of January, with February and March yet to go.

Few who have witnessed a heavy Buffalo snowfall accompanied by thunder and lightning ever forget it.

And that is Geography in the News.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Since 1999, Geography in the News has been a must-read for teachers subscribing to the K-12 online resource Maps101. This one and more than 700 of the 1200 GITN articles are available in full, with supporting materials, critical thinking questions and Spanish language translations, to Maps101 subscribers.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..