The “October Surprise” is something I hope to never déjà vu all over again, meteorologically. Heavy October snow was not unique in all Buffalo history, but it was unique in my lifetime and unique in the lives of meteorologists working then right up to this day.
There had been some very early season major lake snowfalls in our more distant past, including 1906 and 1930. The 1906 event brought up to a foot of snow to the suburbs just south and east of Buffalo. Newspaper accounts of the time focused more on the damage to the new electrical grid and telegraph lines. An even greater storm occurred in 1930 on Oct. 18, again focusing in towns to the south of the city with great damage to trees and electrical lines.
However, our 2006 storm focused on the most densely populated part of upstate New York, including Buffalo, the northern and eastern suburbs, and to a lesser extent, the immediate southtowns. It was the most costly storm in the modern era, producing more than $160 million in damage. Four people died, one hit by a falling limb and the others succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.
In all, about 1 million people were affected by the storm, and most of the damage was done at lower elevations.
So how did the “surprise” element come to be?
I can speak only for myself, but I do know this disastrous event was not well forecast by any of us in my field. However, I have to hang my hat on my own work, so others’ shortcomings are only a small, secret comfort.
In fact, more than a week out the extended range computer guidance was sending clear signals of a deep storm system crossing the Great Lakes with unseasonably cold air, especially aloft up to about 5,000 to 6,000 feet. When these computer models sent this signal a few runs in a row, I felt confident on the air in forecasting the possibility of some accumulating snow, especially at higher elevations where temperatures are generally colder. Higher elevations are almost always the first targets for early season lake snow. That’s climatology.
As days passed, the signal continued, and I emphasized the increasing likelihood we’d see some accumulating snow in parts of Western New York by around Oct. 12. As we got closer to the event, my confidence continued to grow and so did a hint of smugness since I’d “called it” so far in advance. Ha!
By Tuesday, Oct. 10, the higher-resolution, close-in models really joined in. One National Weather Service model in particular began forecasting exceptionally cold air would be drawn in about a mile up. By exceptional, I mean temperatures not seen in my career here or in recent decades at that altitude so early in the season.
I looked at those numbers with skepticism and some disbelief. I decided to depend more heavily on climatology, which, basically, told me air just doesn’t get that cold a mile up over Buffalo that early. I was wrong, since I hadn’t looked up the climatology earlier in the 20th century. The Lake Erie temperature was at 61 degrees, which is very warm but about normal for that early in the month.
However, the 22-degree difference between the lake temperature and the atmosphere around a mile up was huge when the lake band developed. That made the warm air just above the lake more buoyant, rising up into the cold, moist air aloft in convective bubbles.
I had surmised that even if some accumulating lake snow did fall in northern Erie County, the warmth from the lake would cause considerable melting in Buffalo and Amherst. On the night of the Oct. 11, I’d forecast a range of a possible 2 to 4 inches with isolated 3- to 5-inch amounts possible in northern Erie County (which includes Buffalo), with the changeover beginning later in the day on Oct. 12. And I estimated that range of accumulation would pose a somewhat smaller threat to foliated trees than what actually occurred. Wrong on that count, too.
On Oct. 12, I had been downloading data and models from the morning into the early afternoon on my home PC before heading in to work. Off to my right rear and out of my peripheral vision was a window facing a big maple tree. I finally turned my head to take a look at around 1 p.m. I was jolted by what I saw. Hours ahead of my schedule, there was already a slushy coating on those big leaves.
I was home alone, but I uttered an unrepeatable “Oh, ****!” I knew my forecast was in big trouble, and so was the region. By later in the afternoon, the weight of water-laden slushy snow began to bring tree limbs down on powerlines, and the outages began even before dark. They multiplied all night, those outages. It became a game of catch up forecasting all evening and night. By late on the morning of Oct. 13, an incredible 22.6” of snow had fallen at the airport.
Many of you have heard that 1 inch of liquid equals 1 foot of snow. That is a gross oversimplification. That ratio depends on the temperature profile in the lower atmosphere. In extremely cold air, the ratio can be 1 inch of liquid to 20 or 30 inches of snow. In air with marginally cold temperatures the water-to-snow ratio is much lower.
The ratio that afternoon and evening was 1 inch of liquid to 6 inches of snow. It had begun as rain, then rain and graupel pellets (which produce an electrical charge), converting to maximum intensity thundersnow. Hours of thundersnow. Generally, when there is lightning with snow, it’s snowing close to as hard as it can snow.
In this case, this was incredibly heavy water laden slush falling on foliated trees in already saturated soil (from a wet period preceding this event), bringing down the limbs and the trees, producing unprecedented damage to the electrical grid and the landscape.
Many people were without power for a week or more. More than 400,000 lost power, including 70 percent of Buffalonians and 90 percent of suburbanites in the northern and eastern 'burbs. It is safe to say this was the biggest and most destructive lake snowstorm in October ever experienced in the metro area. In terms of physical damage, it was the most costly storm in any month —period.
One saving grace in the storm's aftermath was the return to mild temperatures in its wake, so those without power did not have to suffer through brutal cold. It has since taken years to plant thousands of replacement trees, with much help from Re-Tree Western New York.
Ten years have passed since that disaster, but the memories are still fresh in the minds of local meteorologists. I think if we had very similar conditions turn up again at this time of the year, some of us might push climatology too far off to the side … and probably overreact in the other direction.
Fortunately, as of this writing, there are zero signs of a repeat setup this year this early. For that, we can all be grateful. I know I am.