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What is Lake Effect Snow?

Sun, Nov  19, 2006 - By Bruce B. Smith

By Bruce B. Smith, Meteorologist Science and Operations Officer, NWS Gaylord

What is Lake Effect Snow?

Lake Effect Snow (LES) is very common across the Great Lakes region during the late fall and winter. LES occurs when cold air, often originating from Canada, moves across the open waters of the Great Lakes. As the cold air passes over the unfrozen, and relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, warmth and moisture is transferred into the lowest portion of the atmosphere. The air becomes warmer and less dense than the overriding cold air, so it rises. The rising air ultimately leads to cloudiness and snow on the leeward sides of the Great Lakes. The conceptual model below has been developed highlighting these concepts:

LES typically takes the form of discrete, narrow bands (see radar example). These bands are often characterized by intense snowfall, and limited visibility. One unique aspect of LES is the extreme variability that can occur in space and time. It is not uncommon for sunny skies at a particular location to be quickly replaced by blinding, wind-driven snowfall in a matter of minutes. Similarly, snowfall accumulations can vary from a trace to several inches over a short distance. The variability of LES is of particular danger to motorists.


How does the National Weather Service forecast LES?

National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists must to consider many factors when forecasting the intensity and location of LES. Many are associated with the prevailing meteorological situation, while others are a function of the local geography.

A few of the meteorological factors that impact LES include air temperature, instability (as approximated by the lake to air temperature difference), cold air depth (inversion height), upstream moisture (relative humidity), large-scale lift, and winds. The physical geography of the land and water is also important; including aspects such as fetch, elevation, and shoreline orientation.

One of the more challenging aspects of forecasting LES is pinpointing where the heaviest snow will occur. Even small changes in wind direction can change tremendously the areas impacted. The following table shows which areas typically receive the heaviest snowfall, as a function of wind direction. Though LES can occur with any wind direction, it is most common when winds are from the north through southwest.

Note how even a minor change in wind direction can influence which counties are impacted. This is, in part, why snowfall amounts can vary so widely from location to location during LES events:

Wind Direction  

Map (click for larger image)

  Communities Generally Impacted

North     Frankfort, Manistee
North-northwest     Whitefish Point, Traverse City, Leland, Kalkaska
Northwest     Whitefish Point, East Jordan, Mancelona, Waters
West-northwest     Sault Ste Marie, Boyne Falls, Gaylord
West     Boyne City, Indian River, Petoskey
West-southwest     Harbor Springs, Pellston, St. Ignace, Mackinaw City
Southwest     Brevort, Naubinway, Frankfort, Good Hart

What forecasts and warnings are issued by the National Weather Service for LES?

Snow accumulations associated with LES can be found in the Zone Forecast. When heavy LES is expected, a variety of Watches, Warnings, and Advisories can be issued. A few examples include Lake Effect Snow Watches, Winter Storm Watches, Winter Storm Warnings, Lake Effect Snow Warnings, and Lake Effect Snow Advisories.

[Zone Forecasts and Watches, Warnings, and Advisories can be found on the Local Weather page of].