What’s the Deal With Lake-Effect Snow?

You may have heard the term “Lake-Effect Snow” on The Weather Channel a few times so far this winter season, but what does it really mean? Lake-Effect Snow occurs when cold air passes over the warm waters of an unfrozen lake. Where is this most likely to happen in the United States? The Great Lakes, of course!

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The Great Lakes have a surface area larger than the state of Minnesota. The individual lakes stretch from 190-350 miles across, which is three times the distance needed in order for Lake-Effect Snow to develop and ramp up. Some of the snowstorms from the lake effect produce up to 5 inches of snow per hour, or 11.6 million cubic feet per square mile, which would be enough to fill up the Empire State Building in under three hours!

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The five lakes lie around the 45th parallel north, so during the cold months of winter, they’re hit by arctic air from the polar jet stream. When the arctic front travels over a lake, warm water evaporates and heats the air. This drastic temperature change in the air accelerates the evaporation rate, allowing the arctic front to collect nearly 300 billion gallons of water from a single lake.

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Surprisingly, the side of the lake you live on can completely change how much snow you receive from this effect. Storms move from west to east, so once the Lake-Effect gets moving, it dumps way more snow on the eastern side of the lake compared to the western side. The arctic front accumulates more and more as it travels across the lake, so naturally, the last end to experience the effect gets the brunt of the snow. For example, Toronto, Canada lies of the west side of Lake Ontario and receives an average of 54 inches of snow per year. On the east side of the lake lies Syracuse, NY. They receive a whopping 110 inches of snow per year because of how Lake-Effect Snow impacts their location. 

Feel like you are a Lake-Effect Snow expert now? Get more surprising facts about it here:

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  1. Most of the focus on lake effect snow is in New York. I live in northern Wisconsin in Vilas County and am on the southeastern edge of the “snowbelt” occurring from Lake Superior. My brother-in-law lives in Bergland, MI and is about 20 miles from Lake Superior. He has several feet of snow on the ground to this point of winter and is expecting 8-12 inches of snow several times a week produced from lake effect snow. The highest snow totals occur in the Keewenaw peninsula of the UP of Michigan, where record seasonal snowfall has been around 350 inches. They don’t get as much air time as New York in the weather stories.

  2. Really a concern, but living farther away from the lake in Illinois sounds better for me. We still share the snow and cold winds, but not like the people who live on or near the lake-effect snow near the lakes.
    White Lily

  3. You may want to check your math on filling up the Empire State Building in 3 hrs @5 inches per hour. Unless you are using a 15 inch model of the ESB!!!

  4. Back in 1976-77 winter. Camden, N. Y. broke the snow record that winter season in New York State. Camden was east of Lake Ontario. The record was 40 feet for the whole winter season. They had to go in Camden with rotary snow plows. I remember the snow backs reaching the power lines on the poles. All these people that lived in that area have big food cellars and cupboards. They can food every year in the late summer early fall. They could get snowed in for a couple of weeks. Plenty of food. What if their electric power went off. They had wood stoves or burn coal. Plus, fire places.

  5. Lake-effect snow, school cancelled, snow tunnels & caves dug, “Fox & Goose” played, hot chocolate to warm up on, such memories! If I were still a child…

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