Lake Effect Snow Weather Safety

Lake effect snow is common across the Great Lakes region during the late fall and winter. Lake Effect snow occurs when cold air, often originating from Canada, moves across the open waters of the Great Lakes. As the cold air passes over the unfrozen and relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, warmth and moisture are transferred into the lowest portion of the atmosphere. The air rises, clouds form and grow into narrow band that produces 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour or more.


Wind direction is a key component in determining which areas will receive lake effect snow. Heavy snow may be falling in one location, while the sun may be shining just a mile or two away in either direction. The physical geography of the land and water is also important. National Weather Service meteorologists consider these factors as well as others when forecasting lake effect snow.

Lake-effect snow is produced during cooler atmospheric conditions when a cold air mass moves across long expanses of warmer lake water, warming the lower layer of air which picks up water vapor from the lake, rises up through the colder air above, freezes and is deposited on the leeward (downwind) shores.

The same effect also occurs over bodies of salt water, when it is termed ocean-effect or bay-effect snow. The effect is enhanced when the moving air mass is uplifted by the orographic influence of higher elevations on the downwind shores. This uplifting can produce narrow but very intense bands of precipitation, which deposit at a rate of many inches of snow each hour, often resulting in a large amount of total snowfall.

The areas affected by lake-effect snow are called snowbelts. These include areas east of the Great Lakes, the west coasts of northern Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, and areas near the Great Salt Lake, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Baltic Sea, and parts of the northern Atlantic Ocean.

A lake-effect blizzard is the blizzard-like conditions resulting from lake-effect snow. Under certain conditions, strong winds can accompany lake-effect snows creating blizzard-like conditions; however the duration of the event is often slightly less than that required for a blizzard warning in both the US and Canada.

If the air temperature is low enough to keep the precipitation frozen, it falls as lake-effect snow. If not, then it falls as lake-effect rain. For lake-effect rain or snow to form, the air moving across the lake must be significantly cooler than the surface air (which is likely to be near the temperature of the water surface). Specifically, the air temperature at an altitude where the air pressure is 850 millibars (85 kPa) (roughly 1.5 kilometers or 0.93 miles vertically) should be 13 °C (23 °F) lower than the temperature of the air at the surface. Lake-effect occurring when the air at 850 millibars (85 kPa) is much colder than the water surface can produce thundersnow, snow showers accompanied by lightning and thunder (caused by larger amounts of energy available from the increased instability).

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