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Could the 'October Surprise' happen again? In short: Yes

Could an “October Surprise Storm” like the one in 2006 happen again?

The short answer is yes.

So keep batteries in your flashlights. A generator handy. And extra food in the pantry.

“It will happen again,” said Bob Hamilton, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo. "It’s just a matter of whether we’ll be around to see it.”

Events like the 2006 version are roughly once-in-30-year anomalies, Hamilton said.

But that doesn’t mean they come around like clockwork.

It could be another half-century. Or, the region could be crippled again any October, if all the ingredients are just right.

[RELATED: 10 years ago: A 'giant crunching noise,' the sound of calamity]

That recipe includes warm lake waters. A deep trough of cold air. A cyclonic southwest flow off of Lake Erie.

And leaves still on the trees.

“That’s what made this an event,” Hamilton said. “It was the fact that everything was still leafed out.”

Whether “next time” arrives in the form of a “surprise” probably depends on when it happens again.

Hamilton said forecasters in 2006 just didn’t have long enough memories to realize that it was possible so much snow could fall despite the warmth given off by a 62-degree lake.

“People had just never seen it happen,” he said. “There was a particularly long gap since it had happened last.”

That’s something local meteorologist Don Paul acknowledges.

Paul – a contributing writer to The Buffalo News who returned to television last month as a meteorologist at Channel 7 – was still in his long-tenured service at Channel 4 when the October storm struck. Using models, weather data and his experience, Paul predicted up to five inches of snow before the storm hit.

Snow was likely in the higher elevations of the area, but Paul said he never comprehended the 22.6 inches that was logged at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport by mid-day on Oct. 13 was possible.

[Gallery: News photographers look back on the October Surprise]

He wasn’t the only one.

“I didn’t go back far enough in climatology to see it wasn’t entirely unprecedented,” Paul said.

Paul later found that similar events occurred in 1906 and 1930.

In October 2006, all of the major ingredients for a lake-effect event were in place.

But it was the small meteorological details that made the October storm what it would be.

• A more than 20-degree difference in temperature between the surface of the lake and atmosphere about 5,000 feet above it provided lift.

• The uplift – combined with initial rain and drizzle – cooled the core of the storm enough to allow snowflakes to survive the trip from cloud to ground and not be melted in the layer of air that was still being warmed by the 62-degree lake.

[Then and Now: The October Surprise]

• All the while, the uplift over the warm lake continued to feed the clouds, which topped out at nearly 30,000 feet – about twice the height of average lake-effect storms.

• Little wind shear from the surface up into the atmosphere promoted cloud growth.

• Bigger clouds meant more and more snowflakes contained within them.

This year, the lake is even warmer than it was on this date 10 years ago.

With all the right ingredients, Mother Nature could replicate 2006. The only thing that’s missing today is cold, Canadian air.

“If we had that kind of airmass over the water this year,” Paul said, “it would be incomprehensible.”


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