Buffalo snowstorm: Up to 5 feet possible in western New York

WEATHER NEWS: Buffalo snowstorm: Up to 5 feet possible in western New York


An extreme lake-effect snowstorm is pummeling the eastern shores of Lake Erie, dumping narrow bands of as much as 4 feet of snowfall near Buffalo. More than 40 inches had fallen across a swath of the lake’s shores by Friday afternoon, less than 20 hours since precipitation had started falling, prompting outright bans on travel in the hardest-hit areas.

The massive snowfall was blamed for at least two deaths: Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted “cardiac events related to exertion during shoveling/snow blowing” as the cause.

Meteorologists predict that by the time the lake-effect precipitation along both Lakes Erie and Ontario subsides sometime Sunday, as much as 5 feet of snow could pile up.

What is thundersnow, the lightning and thunder booming with extreme Buffalo snow?

The lake-effect snow bands — which develop when frigid, dry air moves over relatively warmer waters — formed Thursday night and quickly intensified, cranking out snowfall rates of several inches an hour, as well as thunder, lightning, strong winds and near-blizzard conditions.

Buffalo residents observed “thundersnow” over their city on Nov. 17, as lightning and thunder boomed alongside historic snowfall. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The heaviest snowfall was reported in areas just to the southeast of Buffalo, with 54 inches in Orchard Park, where the Buffalo Bills play, and 48 inches near Blasdell, about nine miles south of the city center, the National Weather Service said.

In Hamburg, 12 miles south of Buffalo, the Weather Service reported that 37 inches had fallen by 10:40 a.m., while Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel meteorologist known for following the most extreme conditions, tweeted an image of a yardstick measuring 32 inches there. Snowfall was so intense around Hamburg early Friday that as much as 5 inches of snow fell within a single hour.

Here’s what to know about the lake-effect snow set to wallop Buffalo

Weather models suggested that an additional 10 to 20 inches of snowfall was possible for the hardest-hit areas south of Buffalo by Saturday morning, with 2 to 3 inches falling per hour.

Within the heaviest snow bands, the Weather Service warned that travel would “be very difficult to impossible.” Forecasters described the storm as “crippling” and “paralyzing” in online technical forecast discussions.

Though lake-effect snow is common in western New York this time of year, the amount of snow expected to fall and the intensity of the precipitation means the Weather Service considers the storm to be “extreme.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state of emergency for the region effective Thursday morning, and Buffalo schools announced they would be closed Friday.

As snow came down intensely Friday morning, authorities banned travel on roads across southern portions of Buffalo and communities to the immediate east and south.

Those bans were mostly lifted by late afternoon, though Poloncarz said they could be reinstated as transportation remained a challenge. Portions of some major thoroughfares were closed because of jackknifed tractor-trailers and stuck vehicles, authorities said.

The Buffalo Bills home game against the Cleveland Browns, slated for Sunday, was moved to Detroit. In a tweet, the Bills took the inclement weather as a chance for team spirit, noting that the snowfall took on a pattern not altogether dissimilar from its logo of a charging buffalo.

Because the snow bands are only about 20 miles wide, locations just to their north or south were seeing a minimally disruptive light snowfall.

The Bills’ home field, Highmark Stadium, was covered in multiple feet of snow Friday afternoon. Sixteen miles away, on the northwest side of Buffalo, the University of Buffalo’s stadium was shoveled clear ahead of a football game that had been scheduled for Saturday against the University of Akron, but was postponed to Sunday because of the storm.

Heavy lake-effect snowfall was also reported on the eastern banks of Lake Ontario, with as much as two feet reported in communities north of Syracuse. But snow bands were expected to continue developing there, bringing as much as 3 to 4 feet from Watertown to the Canadian border. As of 4 p.m. Friday, Watertown reported 23.5 inches.

Lake-effect snow warnings remain in effect through at least early Saturday in areas that are expected to remain downwind of Lakes Erie and Ontario, with winter storm watches continuing into Sunday. In areas farther from the lakes and the snow bands’ expected path, winter storm watches and winter weather advisories were in effect because there is less confidence about how much snow the bands — which will waver north and south a bit because of subtle shifts in wind direction — will drop.

48-hour estimated accumulation

In inches as of 7 a.m., Nov. 19

Note: Accumulation data provided only for the U.S.

48-hour estimated accumulation

In inches as of 7 a.m., Nov. 19

Note: Accumulation data

provided only for the U.S.

48-hour estimated accumulation

In inches as of 7 a.m., Nov. 19

Note: Accumulation data provided only for the U.S.

The storm is the most severe to hit the Buffalo region in nearly a decade. Between Nov. 14 and 21, 2014, a pair of back-to-back lake-effect snowstorms dumped up to 88 inches of snow just south of the city. Twenty-six people died during the storm, mostly of heart attacks resulting from shoveling.

The latest system was so intense that it produced numerous reports of thundersnow Thursday night into Friday morning as the intense snow bands, fueled by extreme differences between the relatively warm Lake Erie and frigid air above, unleashed thunder and lightning like a summer tempest.

Across the Buffalo metro area, snowfall totals thus far have walked a steep gradient. Over 40 inches was common on the south side of town Friday afternoon, but just 5 to 10 inches on the city’s north side. Conditions vary significantly in lake-effect bands, given their localized nature, which also leads to sharp cutoffs and sudden jackpots in totals.

The snow bands are expected to remain pointed at the east-northeast shores of the lakes through Friday night, but they may drift north on Saturday afternoon in response to a more southerly component of the winds. Off Lake Erie, that may mean a break for places like Blasdell, West Seneca, Lackawanna and the greater Buffalo area, with the same being true for Watertown off Lake Ontario.

The snow bands will shift south again Sunday as winds become westerly, crossing past their initial positions before targeting areas even farther south that dodged most of the initial snowfall. That could mean 9 to 12 inches for Oswego County, where a winter storm watch is in effect. A pulse of snows will also target New York state’s Western Southern Tier near and especially north of the Allegheny River.

Instigating the snowfall is a stubborn upper-air weather pattern dominated by a sprawling dip in the jet stream, or trough, over the eastern United States. At the high altitudes, a pocket of cold air, low pressure and spin has nestled itself within that southward jet deviation, and it will ebb and flow over the Great Lakes during the coming days. A more concentrated lobe of frigid air aloft will swing directly over Lakes Erie and Ontario on Saturday.

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Those features have been directing a perfectly oriented supply of cold west-southwesterly wind down the entire lengths of the lakes; in the case of Lake Erie, that’s a 240-mile fetch. Air temperatures in the teens and 20s are blowing over water that’s closer to 50 degrees. The stark contrast allows pockets of air heated by the lake below to ascend rapidly in the frosty atmosphere.

As a result, snow clouds some 20,000 feet tall have become established in a conveyor belt feeding down the axis of the lake. Within them, ice crystals aloft are contributing to the development of thundersnow. Low-level convergence, or the gathering of air near the surface, meanwhile, could even support a remote waterspout over the lake — something meteorologists reported observing coming to pass early Friday.

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