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Ice-free lake sets stage for more lake-effect snow

We got through the first “long-lasting, lake-effect” storm. Get ready for more. The Lake Erie snow-making machine remains well fueled, and we have those warm days of December to thank.

More than 90 percent of Lake Erie lies open, the primary ingredient for developing lake-effect snowstorms over the region.

It’s why the region will stare down the barrel of another potential blast of squalls starting late Saturday and extending into next week.

“In an average winter, by the second or third week in January, you start to get icing on the lake. But with our warm December, it’s still wide open for business,” said Jon Hitchcock, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The lake temperature at Buffalo, which is measured 30 feet below the water’s surface at the mouth of the Niagara River, shed four degrees since Sunday under the Arctic air mass that has gripped the region over the last few days. As of late Thursday, the temperature was still 34 degrees.

But as long it’s above freezing and there’s open water, there’s fuel for a lake-effect snowstorm.

Forecasters predict atmospheric conditions will ripen again this weekend. “Lake-effect snow should intensify later Sunday,” Hitchcock said.

A southwest flow of cold air will return and direct squalls into metro Buffalo again for a time during the day Sunday before receding south through the Southtowns and settling in the Southern Tier for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, forecasters predict.

Hitchcock said it’s still a little early to project the exact timing, area and amount of new lake-effect snow. That will come over the next day or two.

Only 18.6 inches has fallen so far this year at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and about half of that total came over just a few hours during the up to 3-inch-per-hour squalls late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Unlike this year, which had a record-warm December, lake-effect storms were more prolific earlier over the last two years.

Think back to the double lake-effect storm of November 2014, with six to seven feet of snow in South Buffalo and the Southtowns.

The lake-effect threat was a lot closer to being shut down by this date the past two winters, too.

Last year, nearly 80 percent of Lake Erie was frozen by mid-January.

During 2013-14, the lake was more than 60 percent frozen by Jan. 14.

In an average year, about 40 percent of the lake is covered in ice by this date.

“Because of the strong El Niño, it’s turning out to be a more mild ice year,” said George A. Leshkevich, a scientist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “I think that will probably continue.”

Will Lake Erie freeze this year?

It’s a pretty safe bet. Only twice before in the last half-century has Lake Erie failed to freeze during the winter – 1998 and 2012.

When that happens this year is hard to judge. “Sometimes the last couple of degrees takes a while,” Hitchcock said.

It’s also too early to know how the rest of this winter plays out. But Leshkevich said the El Niño setup and other atmospheric elements in place this year could affect snowfall in either of two ways:

• Keeping more of the lake ice-free and prone to lake-effect snow; or

• discouraging lake-effect snow with periods of above-average warmth.

What’s likely is that the potential for lake-effect snow won’t go away altogether this year, but that doesn’t mean the region will get hammered constantly, either.

“It might just be more sporadic,” Leshkevich said of the snowstorms.

If you’re not a snow lover and want to think positive, look to the warm winter of 2011-12.

Lake Erie never froze, but there was only 36.7 inches of snow the entire season – good for third on Buffalo’s all-time list of least snowiest winters.

The only other time Lake Erie didn’t freeze was during the strong El Niño year of 1997-98.

And that year brought just the kind of variability Leshkevich referenced.

It ended with 75.6 inches of total snowfall – about 20 inches below normal, but there were some unusual occurrences:

• 16.7 inches of snow fell in October and November 1997 followed by below-average snowfall of 18.2 inches in December, 13.6 inches in January and only 1.8 inches in February.

Then came March 1998, the eighth-snowiest March in Buffalo’s history, with 25.3 inches of snow.