Winter Weather Handbook: Understanding Lake Effect Snow

Severe Weather Handbook

EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — As the air cools for winter, lakes take longer to do so. This scientific principle feeds lake effect snow.

Meteorologist Thomas Battle has a look at this weather phenomenon in Pennsylvania. Lake effect snow is a sometimes dangerous form of weather that happens often across Pennsylvania.

“When you have an artic airmass moving over water that may be 40 or 45 degrees, it’s as if you had a pot of water on the stove boiling it. All that steam comes up, all the moisture and energy. So with that boiling action you get, the clouds are able to generate to rise and precipitate,” National Weather Service Binghamton meteorologist Mark Pellerito said.

Our area sees lake effect snow thanks to a variety of factors.

“You get moisture contributions not just from Lake Erie or Ontario. All the way up you can get lake to lake connections. You get Lake Superior adding moisture, Lake Huron adding moisture, and Lake Michigan and sometimes they all combine. And sometimes they can get a cold front too which will squeeze all that together,” Pellerito said.

Pennsylvania has no shortage of mountains or valleys to influence the weather..

“Lake effect moisture can travel, but sometimes it can hit a mountain. So that wind just sort of bunches up and lets the clouds pile up. Even that can help generate lake effect snow showers from moisture even hundreds of miles away,” Pellerito said.

And warmer weather doesn’t mean less lake effect snowfall.

“So we’ve had a slow start to the winter as far as temperatures being on the warm side. But remember that that also means the great lakes themselves are warmer than average and thus more capable of generating lake effect snowfall,” Pellerito said. “Even in a below average winter, you can get rapidly changing conditions and that one storm that will send you into a ditch if you’re not ready.”

Your best defense while driving is to simply take it slow and give yourself some extra time.

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