• The Great Lakes snowbelts are home to some of the heaviest snowfall in the world.
  • That’s due to prolific lake-generated snow events that can produce feet of snow over several days.
  • Some all-time snowfall rate records were set in upstate New York.

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L​ake-effect snow generated by the Great Lakes is among the heaviest snowfall in the world.

The ingredients are straightforward and come together a number of times each fall and winter.

Cold air from Canada pours over the still unfrozen, relatively warm Great Lakes, the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes.

The lake moisture and instability from this temperature contrast build one or more bands of snow, which are then deposited over locations downwind from the lakes, from upstate New York to upper Michigan.

Lake-effect snowbands blanket the Great Lakes region on Jan. 5, 2015 in this high-resolution image from NASA's Aqua satellite. (NASA/Worldview)

Lake-effect snowbands blanket the Great Lakes region on Jan. 5, 2015, in this high-resolution image from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

(NASA Worldview)

The heaviest lake-effect snow events occur when a flow of air much colder than the unfrozen lake sets up over the longest stretch of the lake’s axis, persisting as long as possible.

When this occurs, you can get a single, narrow, intense band of snow, sometimes accompanied by thunder and lightning, dumping incredible snowfall rates over a small area for several days on end. Feet of snow can pile up under this band, while just 10 to 15 miles away, only light snow falls, if any.

If the terrain rises appreciably from the downwind lakeshore, as it does in most Great Lakes snowbelt locations, that added lift to the air accentuates the snowfall.

Lake-Effect Events Dominate Short-Term Snow Rate Records

Weather historian Christopher Burt compiled a list of the record snowfall rates in his book, “Extreme Weather.” Many of the snowfall records for periods of 24 hours or less are dominated by lake-effect snow events, primarily those from Lake Ontario.

While the Lake Ontario snowbelt doesn’t officially hold the 24-hour U.S. snowfall record, it does hold the official 24-hour snowfall record for the state of New York: 50 inches set in Camden on Feb. 1, 1966. Even higher unofficial snowfalls have been recorded nearby, with the towns of Adams and Barnes Corners receiving 68 inches and 54 inches, respectively, on Jan. 9, 1976.

Lake Ontario’s depth allows it to be largely unfrozen even in the middle of winter, keeping it open to generating lake-effect snow. Single bands of heavy lake-effect snow also form more often off this Great Lake due to its west-to-east orientation. Furthermore, the Tug Hill Plateau rises steeply from the lakeshore, adding lift to the lake-effect band.

Three- to four-foot lake snowstorms are routine here each fall and winter. In 2007, however, even this snowbelt was overwhelmed.

Over a 10-day period from Feb. 3-12, 2007, an incredible 141 inches of snow were measured in the town of Redfield, New York, about 50 miles northeast of Syracuse.

Feb. 3-12, 2007 lake-effect snowstorm in Lake Ontario snowbelt (AP/NWS-Buffalo)

Left: A giant snow pile is left in the wake of the Feb. 2007 lake-effect snowstorm. Right: Snowfall totals from the Feb. 3-12, 2007, lake-effect snowstorm in the Lake Ontario snowbelt.

(AP/NWS-Buffalo)

Once the snow finally ended, National Weather Service officials traveled to the area to confirm the totals. They had a hard time putting this storm into context since it occurred off and on for 10 days.

In December 2001, Montague, New York, was buried under 127 inches of snow in just six days.

While Syracuse, New York, is typically America’s snowiest large city (127.8 inches), one location in the Tug Hill Plateau north of Syracuse near the town of Hooker picks up 100 more inches than Syracuse each year.

Other Great Lakes Are Also Prolific Snowmakers

Anyone from northeast Ohio to western New York, including the Buffalo metro area, knows what cold air over Lake Erie is capable of.

Prior to Thanksgiving 2014, a lake-effect snowstorm hammered the Buffalo area for four days with up to 88 inches of snow, bringing the city to a grinding halt.

Up to 6-inch-per-hour snowfall rates were measured during this historic snowstorm, which occurred in two rounds, each accompanied by thundersnow.

A wall of intense snowfall descends on the Buffalo Southtowns during a historic back-to-back lake-effect snow event in November 2014. (Shawn Smith/NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015)

A wall of intense snowfall descends on the Buffalo Southtowns during a historic back-to-back lake-effect snow event in November 2014.

(Shawn Smith/NOAA Weather in Focus Photo Contest 2015)

Lakes Michigan and Superior are also prodigious snow manufacturers. On average, you’ll roughly double your annual snowfall from Detroit (45 inches) to Muskegon, Michigan (87.2 inches).

image

Average annual snowfall (1981-2010 period) in the Great Lakes and Midwest.

(Midwest Regional Climate Center)

While Lake Michigan snowstorm totals might not usually be as jaw-dropping as their Lake Erie or Ontario counterparts, there are some exceptions.

On January 8, 2011, a snowband spanning virtually the entire north-south length of Lake Michigan curled into South Bend, Indiana, hammering the city with some of the highest snowfall rates you’ll ever see outside the other snowbelts.

Here were two weather observations taken that morning at the South Bend Regional Airport:

5:54 a.m.: KSBN 081054Z 00000KT 1/4SM +SN SNINCR 8/19

6:54 a.m.: KSBN 081154Z 28009KT 1/4SM +SN SNINCR 6/23

The “SNINCR” remark in the observations above is put in by a weather observer indicating how much snow fell in the hour prior to the observation. Yes, there were 8, then 6 inches of snow falling per hour at South Bend in this event.

This was the heaviest calendar-day snow of record for the city (26 inches) dating to 1893, with a record two-day total of 36.6 inches from Jan. 7-8, 2011.

image

Lake-effect snowband, denoted by yellow arrow, responsible for the snowiest day on record in South Bend, Indiana, on Jan. 8, 2011.

(NASA)

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is also notoriously snowy, not simply due to its higher latitude but also due to Lake Superior.

The snowiest of these locations are elevated terrain to the west of Marquette, including parts of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where snowfall of over 200 inches is considered an average winter.

Keweenaw County, Michigan, took such pride in a record-smashing 390-plus-inch snow season in 1978-79 that a “snow-mometer” was constructed along U.S. Highway 41.

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