Lake Effect Snow

One of the cool (or perhaps not-so-cool, depending on your opinion of snow) things about living in western New York is the phenomenon known as “Lake Effect Snow” or LES.

Bands of Lake Effect Snow visible on radar, November 23, 2013. From Weather Underground.
Bands of Lake Effect Snow visible on radar, November 23, 2013. From Weather Underground.

Lake effect snow occurs when air temperatures are below freezing but lake water remains above freezing. The air, is cold, but dry. The lake water evaporates into the cold air, resulting in an immediate blizzard. Snow coming off the lake will form bands which blow off the lake leaving streaks of snow across the landscape. These bands can be only a few miles wide to tens of miles wide. In a band, it can be a total white-out, with snow falling at rates of an inch or more per hour. But outside of a band the sun can be shining through blue skies.

You can tell from the image above that the prevailing winds are from northwest to southeast. There is a stream of precipitation coming off the Georgian Bay (part of Lake Huron) in the upper left, that makes it past Toronto into Lake Ontario. You can see bands coming off of lakes Erie and Ontario as well.

Today, we got a dusting of LES, and it reminds me of what’s going to happen as the winter progresses.

Last year, I fiddled around a bit with an isotopic study of Lake Effect Snow (read about it here and the results here). My assumption was that it would be a relatively simple system. The isotopic values of the snow should be constant, because it’s all forming directly off the lake not all that far away (read about how isotopes in water work here).

What I found was that it wasn’t that simple at all. It seemed that changes in air temperature had a substantial effect on the isotopic values of the snow. That actually makes sense. And we should be able to calculate what that temperature is if we can get water samples from the lake in addition to snow samples from a single Lake Effect Snow event.

I also suspect that isotopic values may differ, whether the snow is collected close to the lake or far away. It should get lighter with greater distance (again, read here).

So this winter, my hope is to recruit some local people – weather watchers, local meteorologists, and others who have some influence – and make this happen.

I need Lake Ontario water samples for analysis – preferably from times near when LES events are happening.

I need people to collect snow from a broad distribution across the landscape – Perhaps for now, limiting collection to Wayne County, NY (where I live) would be the simplest, but getting samples from anywhere would be useful. People who are already weather watchers for the National Weather Service might be ideal for this, since they’re already going out every six hours to measure snow, it wouldn’t be much to collect a ziplock bag of snow at that time and stick it in the freezer. Who knows, there might also be a correlation of snow amount with isotopic values.

I also need temperature information from the time of events – I don’t know if the crystallization of snow occurs just above the lake surface, or higher aloft. I suspect it happens low. We can see if calculated temperatures for formation make sense. A lot of this I can get on-line, thankfully.

If you are interested in helping in any way, please let me know. If you have suggestions, also let me know.

This is a seat-of-the-pants project that I’m just doing for giggles. But who knows, it could become a full-blown, funded project. And certainly, professional publications could come out of it. This is real science. The good stuff!

Comment below, and I’ll get back to you!

Published by paleololigo

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.

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