A "narrow but intense" band of lake-effect snow shifted south across the Buffalo metro area, producing snowfall of up to 3 inches per hour, the National Weather Service reported.
The band was forecast to "slowly but steadily drift southward through mid evening" and cross the Southtowns and Wyoming County, eventually reaching northern portions of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, the Weather Service said.
Areas impacted as the band drifts south include Clarence, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Lackawanna, Orchard Park, Hamburg, East Aurora, Batavia, Attica and Java, as well as the Thruway between exits 61 and 48.
Wind gusts as high as 40 mph are possible, resulting in near-whiteout conditions at times due to the combination of heavy snow and blowing snow. Some lightning and thunder are also possible.
"All the trucks are out and the blowing wind is probably more of a problem than the snow," Charlie Sickler, director of engineering for the Erie County Department of Public Works, said just after 9 p.m.
Those conditions led authorities to temporarily close the main runway at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga. The airport's arrivals and departures board was full of flight cancellations and delays. And a "no unnecessary travel" advisory was issued for the Town of Lancaster.
Earlier Wednesday evening, the lake-effect band slammed the Northtowns with blowing snow.
Conditions in the Town of Tonawanda were "not good" just before 8 p.m., said Highway Superintendent Bill Swanson. Eight Highway Department crews are out plowing and treating town roads until midnight when 22 crews will head out to clear roads before the Thursday morning commute, he said.
"Until the snow gets out of here, the roads won't really look their greatest," he said. "But we're out there. They'll be out there all night."
Five inches of snow had fallen by 6 p.m. at the Weather Service's office at the Buffalo airport in Cheektowaga, according to the latest totals. Five inches also fell during a 90-minute period Wednesday in Lackawanna. And Akron picked up 5.5 inches by 4:30 p.m.
A lake-effect snow warning runs in northern Erie County, including Buffalo, and Genesee County until 1 a.m. Thursday.
In Niagara County, there is a lake-effect snow advisory in place until 7 p.m. Up to five inches of snow is possible in the most persistent squalls.
The atmospheric instability may even be intense enough to cause thunder and lightning in some locations. At least one such report was reported near Cheektowaga earlier this afternoon and confirmed by the Weather Service.
750 PM UPDATE: SNOWFALL RATE THIS PAST HOUR AT THE BUFFALO AIRPORT WAS 2.5 INCHES...DRIVING IN THIS LAKE EFFECT BAND IS HIGHLY DISCOURAGED! pic.twitter.com/VJjF7CRBEJ
— NWS Buffalo (@NWSBUFFALO) December 15, 2016
Area roadways were experiencing treacherous, "near blizzard conditions" late Wednesday afternoon into the early evening. Motorists were advised to consider staying at their workplace past dinnertime if headed north and east.
The Weather Service advised motorists to be prepared for snow or ice covered roads and slow down and allow extra time when traveling.
Area roadways were dicey for the evening commute. The Skyway is closed and Route 5 is closed from Ridge Road to the 190. And, the Kensington and Route 219 were like parking lots during the commute.
Here are a few looks around the Buffalo Niagara region from Buffalo News reporters:
— Maki Becker (@makibecker) December 15, 2016
— Brian Connolly (@brianjconnolly) December 14, 2016
— Toni Ruberto (@ToniRuberto) December 14, 2016
— Karen Robinson (@KarenRobinsonBN) December 14, 2016
The late afternoon commute was snarled as traffic slowed by blowing snow clogged city streets.
The Buffalo Public Schools sent out robocalls to parents informing them that students would be delayed returning home because of First Student buses running behind in the inclement weather.
Some area buildings announced early closures this afternoon, including:
- Buffalo City Hall, closed at 1:45 p.m.
- Lackawanna City Hall, closed at 2 p.m.
- All downtown Buffalo court buildings – state, county and local – at 2 p.m.
- Non-essential Erie County employees were allowed to leave work early.
- Buffalo Public Schools cancelled all after-school activities.
- Erie Community College cancelled all Wednesday evening classes.
Several roadways were also being impacted by the afternoon weather, including:
- The Buffalo Police Department reported that the Skyway was closed in both directions at about 2:20 p.m. until further notice.
- Northbound Route 219 was closed beyond Route 179 because of an accident at 2:37 p.m., NITTEC reported.
- The southbound Niagara Thruway was closed beyond Elm Street because of a 2:10 p.m. accident, NITTEC reported.
- The Skyway is closed and Route 5 is closed from Ridge Road to the 190 at 2:35 p.m., NITTEC reported.
Other closings or cancellations include the postponement of today's Community Forum on Plastic Pollution and Single-Use Bags that was scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Tewksbury Lodge at 249 Ohio St. A rescheduled date will be announced. The public hearing on the New York State Department of Transportation's plans for the Scajaquada Expressway scheduled for Wednesday evening has been cancelled.
A pair of heavy lake-effect bands set up about 3 p.m., encompassing downtown and the Northtowns. Downtown workers were advised to make it out before the heavy snow squalls started or consider waiting until after 8 p.m.
That's when the heavy snow bands started heading southward again and skies over the Buffalo metro area and Northtowns cleared.
“This will be a relatively short-lived but potentially high-impact event centered around evening commute,” forecasters from the National Weather Service stated in its lake-effect snow warning.
That prognostication held.
Gusty winds, produced blowing and drifting snow resulted in fender-benders, closed roadways and bottle-necked traffic.
Today’s heavy lake-effect snow is being spurred by an early-season blast of unusually cold Arctic air.
The southward trek of the polar vortex into northern Ontario and Quebec is generating a large cyclonic flow of frigid air over the Great Lakes. That is resulting in heavy lake-effect snow region-wide from Wisconsin to the North Country in New York State.
The snow band is expected to move south during the evening hours with a slight change in the wind direction but not before putting down up to seven inches of snow in these affected areas.
A shift in wind direction pulled the snow band southward for the evening hours, through the Southtowns into the Southern Tier.
In southern Erie County, the warning is posted until 7 p.m. Thursday. Storm totals of 7 to 14 inches are possible.
Farther south, in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, the warning for lake-effect snow doesn't expire until Friday morning. Up to 18 inches of new snow is possible in areas that received close to two feet of snow late last week.
By 7 a.m. Friday, metro Buffalo could see up to a foot of new snow, according to weather service projections.
So far in the 2016-17 winter season, just 6.5 inches has fallen at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
That's nearly a foot below average for this date in the year.
To add insult to injury, a year ago on this date, the temperature at Buffalo reached 71 degrees.
It set the all-time record in Buffalo for the latest day in the calendar year when a 70-degree day was recorded.