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Lake Effect Snow--Isn't that just a fancy title?

Updated on January 26, 2012

Thundersnow . . . Bow Down Before It

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Different Types of Snow

For most people in the world, there is only one type of frozen precipitation that comes down in fluffy little ice crystals--snow. It's white, cold, wet, and a real pain in the back to shovel off your driveway. All in all, only one word in English is needed for a person to think of the joys of winter.

It's almost common knowledge that Native American tribes that lived farther up North had several different words for "snow". A young child could spend hours thinking of reasons for why there would be more than one word. Frankly, it's because there are different types of snow in existence, and that language had a word for each and every type of different snow, from snow that you could build things with to slushy snow that is dangerous to walk on.

But here in the United States, there is pretty much "snow". We have to add descriptions to indicate what type of snow it is, if we feel the need for it. And here, just east of scenic Syracuse, New York, we have two types of snow. We have just regular, fluffy snow and we have the bane of our winter existence--Lake Effect Snow.

What is Lake Effect Snow?

Lake Effect Snow is, in short, really heavy. It is completely weighed down by water. Yes, water makes snow and all snow melts into water, but Lake Effect Snow has a lot of it. As it's name suggests, it gets that water from the lake. But here's a little science behind it.

A very cold body of air begins moving over the land. Since the air is cold, it sinks and becomes close to the ground. In the path of the body of cold air is a pretty large lake. But the lake's temperature is not as cold as the air mass. So, this difference in temperature (roughly about 23 degrees F) causing the water from the lake to go up into the sky and freeze. However, the air mass gains some heat from the lake, because the air mass was also sucking up heat, so then the water comes down as Lake Effect Snow. The greater the difference between the two temperatures, the greater the amount of water will be sucked up. But remember, the temperature of the air mass needs to be at the freezing point or else you just get rain or freezing rain.

As the air mass, now weighed down by the frozen water crystals, hits land and warms up even more, the snow will come down and, in areas of high altitude, it will come down big. Also, keep in mind that if the difference of air and water temperature is great enough, it can produce thundersnow. This is exactly what it sounds like; a snowstorm with thunder and lightning.

Lake Effect Snow doesn't have to occur by a lake. The same process can happen over bodies of salt water, but that is called ocean-, sea-, bay-, sound- (Pick one) effect snow.

Lake Effect Snow normally occurs in places that are known as snowbelts. These are all over the world. In the United States, they are primarily located around the Great lakes, from Indiana, to Michigan, to Pennsylvania, to New York and everywhere in between. And those that live in these areas know that Lake Effect Snow is a huge pain.

Graphs Show It Better

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Why Is Lake Effect Snow A Pain?

One word: Amount.

When you get a Lake Effect Snowstorm, you're not always talking two or three inches and then you're done. Those storms usually give six inches to a foot of snow, easy. And the snow is heavy. It can really pile up fast and make the roads a real mess.

Here's an example. Scenic Syracuse, just west of my location, gets at least 115 inches of snow a year, according to wikipedia (but I've heard word of mouth claim it's 130 inches). The Tughill Plateau, also near my area, receives on average 300 inches of snow (once again, wikipedia. Not sure about this claim, but I wouldn't be surprised). That's a lot of snow. When you get that much snow every winter, you get used to climbing up on your roof to shovel it off and then shovel it off your driveway, and your porch, and the back steps, and your car, and your mailbox, finding your dog in it . . . And because of the weight and the amount, it can cave in roofs. Now, the structure of the roof doesn't have to be weakened with age or just put together wrong, because five plus feet of snow is a lot of weight and can destroy a roof. As an added "benefit", Lake Effect, along with it's friend Freezing Rain, can also down power lines.

The snow goes everywhere. The snow comes with a huge amount of wind, so the snow drifts can be a real pain too. It's a sad day when you have to shovel a snow drift off your porch, but it must be done. And that wind can make driving extremely dangerous. Yes, snow is slick and you can spin out. But a Lake Effect Snowstorm is really good at showing you a white-out. A white-out is when the wind and the snow are blowing around so much that you can not see five feet in front of you--all you see is snow, snow, and more snow (until you crash into the tree because you went off the road).

Oswego, 2007. Whiteout.

This is a Car Lot, February 2007.

Seriously.  Those bumps are cars.
Seriously. Those bumps are cars. | Source

Personal Story

I moved with my family to Upstate New York from Rhode Island. We had some snowstorms down there, but it mostly just blew out to sea. But then we moved, and that first winter my family finally realized what a white-out was, how to push a car out of a three feet high snowbank, and how to deal with a snowstorm that can last two to three days straight.

I got used to the winters here soon enough. They were just fine with me. Then, I graduated high school and was enrolled into the State University of New York at Oswego (located right next to the beautiful Tughill Plateau and on the shores of Lake Ontario. As a side note, this school is known for it's meteorology program and that is probably because of the weather the city of Oswego gets and the fact that Al Rocker went there. But I digress.) I had a car, attended my first semester of classes, and enjoyed college life.

When I left for winter break to return home, I was walking out to my car in shorts and a t-shirt. The temperature had been in the sixties and seventies all fall, and we had barely seen a flake of snow. We started to get some snow before the second semester started, but it wasn't much. It was then that disaster struck.

February 2007--cold air masses kept pushing themselves over Lake Ontario. The lake's waters were extremely warm and the water was really sucked up into the air masses. It snowed terribly almost every day that entire month. A week of classes at SUNY Oswego were cancelled because of the snow, and the maintenance crews of both the college and the city could not keep up with the accumulation. The college would first plow the employee lots, then the walkways, then the commuter lots, and then have to go back to plow the employee lots again.

The resident car lots were like tundras. You could see little bumps in the snow that marked where cars were. Some paths had been cleared so that the cars could be shoveled out and driven, but the amount of snow made that an extremely difficult task. All the while, the snow kept on falling.

Many counties were in a state of emergency, because they were running out of places to put the snow. And an advisory was in place that told people "no unnecessary travel". Of course, wonderful me thought that my job was more important than the risk to my life and I drove every weekend back to my home to work in my little 1999 Mercury Cougar.

SUNY Oswego students got a real kick out of the snowstorm. Many had never seen snow fall like that and we even got a mention on the Colbert Report for "proving Global Warming does not exist". And afterwards, just that one snowstorm that seemed to last weeks on end dropped about 140 inches of snow--in one go.

No, It's Not Fancy Title. It's A Warning for DOOM!

Lake Effect Snow really is just snow that becomes monstrous because of a lake. There isn't much that can be done to prevent Lake Effect Snow. It's nature and she will do what she wants. But you can help yourself survive the dangers of Lake Effect Snow by following a few tips!

1.) Don't drive unless you absolutely have to. And even then, remember to drive cautiously, give yourself room, anticipate what other drivers will do, keep an eye on the road, have an emergency kit, and know how to correct a sliding car.

2.) Don't shovel off your roof unless you have to, and never during a storm. The snow can pile up quick and can collapse a roof (but we're talking A LOT of snow). Don't keep climbing up there every few inches. And never during a storm. The wind and snow can blind you and you can fall off your roof (or fall through it).

3.) Be prepared. Everyone always says that, but you need a kit with flashlights, water, food, blankets, candles, a radio, and batteries. You should be prepared to last a few days to a week. If you're living in an area that is prone for Lake Effect, it isn't a bad idea to have a kerosene heater either, just in case a storm knocks out the power, and your heat.

There really isn't much else to say for tips. It's common sense and whatever you think is a good idea. Keep an eye on the weather channel and just be careful when driving and shoveling. Lake Effect Snow is apart of life for many people and winter wouldn't be the same without it--it would be better, but not the same. And even though it looks white and fluffy and is cold and wet, it is a harbinger of doomed plans, wasted time, and found memories of being snowed-in.

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    • Cammiebar profile image
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      Cammiebar 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I'm glad that it will help! Those snowstorms can be pretty cool, but you have to be careful with them. Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      A Person 5 years ago

      Thanks for posting, this helps a lot with my school project on how to survive a Lake Effect Snowstorm!

    • Cammiebar profile image
      Author

      Cammiebar 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you for stopping by! All the best!

    • freelanceauthor profile image

      freelanceauthor 5 years ago

      Very informative, voted up.

    • Cammiebar profile image
      Author

      Cammiebar 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      It really is. But the worst I ever saw it was honestly that winter of 2007. Thank you for your comment and for reading, Christy!

      All the best!

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge on Lake Effect Snow. Wow, now that is a LOT of snow!

    • Cammiebar profile image
      Author

      Cammiebar 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you for your comment! It happens every year for me.

      All the best!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 5 years ago from Dubai

      Excellent hub. Full of useful and interesting information about Lake Snow. Voted up.