• Heavy lake-effect snow will hammer the Great Lake snowbelts into this weekend.
  • The most intense snowbands will impact areas downwind of lakes Erie and Ontario, including Buffalo.
  • Multiple feet of snow are likely to have severe impacts on travel in these snowbelts.
  • This could be one of Buffalo’s heaviest snowstorms on record.

A​ potentially historic lake-effect snowstorm will dump feet of snow in parts of the Great Lakes snowbelts into this weekend that is likely to bring travel to a standstill in parts of New York state, including the Buffalo metro area.

Bands of snow off the Great Lakes have already piled up to some impressive totals, including 10 to 12 inches of snow well south of downtown Buffalo, up to 17 inches in Ashtabula County, Ohio, and up to 13 inches in Berrien County, Michigan.

(MAP: Interactive Radar)

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B​ut in some areas, much heavier snow lies ahead.

Lake-effect snow warnings are in effect east and southeast of lakes Erie and Ontario in western and upstate New York, northwest Pennsylvania and far northeast Ohio. Those warnings include Buffalo and Watertown, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

W​inter storm warnings and winter weather advisories are posted elsewhere in the lake snowbelts, including in western Lower Michigan, western Upper Michigan and extreme northern Wisconsin.

Major to extreme impacts are expected in some of the areas under warnings, according to NOAA’s Winter Storm Severity Index.

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Winter Storm Severity Index

(This index, from NOAA’s National Weather Service, attempts to scale the impacts from winter weather, taking into account factors such as snowfall, accumulated snow on rooftops, ice accumulation, the potential for a flash freeze, and blowing snow. Not all factors are in play in a given winter storm. )

T​he Forecast

T​imeline

I​n the Lake Erie snowbelt, beginning Thursday night, winds will shift out of a more southwesterly direction, producing a single, much heavier band of snow along almost the entire length of the lake into the Buffalo metro area. Snowfall rates in this band could be up exceed three inches per hour and might be accompanied by thundersnow at times through Friday night.

S​aturday, that heavy snowband is expected to shift north into Niagara Falls and the north Buffalo metro before a cold front sweeps through on Sunday, pushing that band south again before it finally fizzles.

Another intense band of snow is expected to form off Lake Ontario into areas of upstate New York, starting over Oswego and the Tug Hill Plateau through Thursday, then migrating north to near Watertown Thursday night through the weekend before ending.

H​ow Much Snow

Snowfall totals in multiple feet are expected in the Buffalo metro area, as well as along parts of the Interstate 81 corridor of upstate New York and the Tug Hill Plateau from this multi-day pummeling. Locally up to 4 feet of snow could fall in portions of the Buffalo metro area.

A​t least 6 inches of additional lake-effect snow is also likely along the I-90 corridor into northwest Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio well east of downtown Cleveland, over much of western Lower Michigan and the Lake Superior snowbelts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and far northern Wisconsin.

T​ravel will be treacherous, if not impossible, at times, along these stretches with whiteout conditions within the heaviest snowbands.

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Historical Storm?

B​uffalo, New York, is one of the snowiest larger cities in America. Just over 95 inches of snow is measured in Buffalo each year, on average.

T​his snowstorm has the potential to dump 25 to 50 percent of the city’s average annual snow in just a few days’ time.

A​ccording to NOAA’s historical database, Buffalo’s all-time 1-day snowfall record was 33.9 inches on Dec. 10, 1995. Its 2-, 3-, and 4-day snowstorm records were from a late December 2001 snowstorm. These measurements were taken at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, located northeast of downtown. Buffalo’s southern suburbs, or Southtowns, often see the heaviest snow amounts in a lake-effect snowstorm.

E​ight years ago, Buffalo and western New York were also hammered by a prolific, multi-day, lake-effect snowstorm.

U​p to 88 inches of snow buried the Buffalo Southtowns, a record for the region.

A​ 132-mile long section of the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) was shut down for several days.

“There were 14 fatalities with this storm, hundreds of major roof collapses and structural failures, thousands of stranded motorists and scattered food and gas shortages due to impassable roads,” the National Weather Service in Buffalo wrote in a post-storm summary.

In 2000, two feet of snow in the days leading up to Thanksgiving trapped thousands on roads, in schools or businesses in what was considered the most disruptive storm in the Buffalo metro since the infamous Blizzard of 1977, according to the National Weather Service.

I​t’s not certain this event will be a repeat of either of these major storms. But it does have that potential.

Do not travel in these areas during the height of the storm. If you absolutely must travel, let others know about your plans and carry a winter survival kit in your vehicle in case you become stranded.

W​hy Such A Heavy Lake-Effect Storm?

A​ sharp southward plunge of the jet stream will remain in place from eastern Canada through the Midwest and Northeast. This will keep a pipeline of cold air wide open from Canada across the Great Lakes.

T​hat cold air will flow over the much warmer water of the Great Lakes. This contrast of cold air over warmer lake water will generate bands of lake-effect snow along the downwind shores of the lakes, known as the Great Lakes snowbelts, from western and Upper Michigan to northern Indiana, northeast Ohio, northwest Pennsylvania and in western and upstate New York.

T​his is a common pattern that usually sets up in late fall and early winter.

(​MORE: Five Extreme Winter Weather Patterns To Watch For)

B​ut there are reasons why this will be a more prolific snow event in some places.

F​irst, the Great Lakes are very warm for mid-November, due in large part to one of the warmest starts to November on record. Lake Ontario is the warmest it’s been for mid-November in at least 27 years, according to an analysis from NOAA shown below. Lake Erie is at its second warmest for mid-November since the mid-1990s.

Lake Ontario water temperatures from 1995 through 2022. 2022, shown in orange, has the warmest lake temperature on record for November 14 of any year since 1995.

(NOAA)

The warmer the water, the more unstable the air is when coupled with the cold air flowing over it. Air can then rise faster into the clouds and generate snowfall more efficiently.

Instability in this case could be so extreme it may manufacture heavy snowbands accompanied with thunder and lightning, at times, producing several inches per hour snowfall rates.

S​econdly, winds are expected to line up along the longest axis of both lakes Erie and Ontario.

W​hen this happens, lake-effect snow takes the form of one solid, 100-plus-mile long band of heavy snow as opposed to multiple bands of lighter snow.

Finally, this event will last for several days. That means if the single, long band of heavy snow stalls over a given area, several feet of snow is likely to pile up.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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