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it's already lake-effect season in Western New York.

Long before snow shovels need dusting off or parkas need unpacking, Lake Erie is getting ready to turn on a populace that has been thinking summery thoughts of beaches and warmth for the past few months, according to a meteorological study reviewed here Thursday.

The warmth may linger, but this is the start of the season for lake effect storms -- in the form of rain.

"It's the same beast, it just plays under slightly different rules," said Todd Miner of Pennsylvania State University's meteorology department, during a Great Lakes weather conference here.

Miner's in-depth analysis of Northeastern weather records indicates that lake-effect rains start downwind of Lake Erie in late August, eventually shifting to lake-effect snows in early November and tapering off in January as the lake freezes over.

The term "lake effect" has been chilled into the vocabulary of Western New Yorkers, who link it to whiteouts and blizzard-like conditions. But lake-effect rain can also occur -- even if it's harder to spot, according to Miner and other forecasters at the Seventh U.S./Canada Great Lakes Workshop on Operational Meteorology.

"What's more noticeable -- seven-tenths of an inch of rain or 14 inches of snow?" asked Miner, comparing storms of similar precipitation intensity.

On average, Western New York can expect "a total of four to six" lake-effect rainstorms, he added -- one or two in September, three in October and one every other November. The lake-effect storms can add 25 to 30 percent to the local rainfall totals, he added.

Often, the lake effect can be "masked" by a general rain, unnoticed because it merely adds to the intensity or total of rain already falling.

"Not surprisingly, it's quite similar to (lake-effect) snow," Miner said. "But there are some differences."

Like lake-effect snows, the rains depend on lake temperatures that are warmer than the air passing over the waters. The resulting instability doesn't have to be as severe as the temperature differences that trigger snows, Miner said.

His study, he said, shows that "the rain season seems to start in August and end in early November when we get into snow. It does suggest that things really get cooking in late September."

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