My Lake Effect Snow Story

The best way to explain Buffalo’s lake effect snow is with a little story. It was the day Helaine and I got our marriage license. Because we were getting married in Pennsylvania we had to drive to Erie, PA.

This evening at 4:45 the Weather Service office in Buffalo relayed a report from West Seneca, NY. A volunteer observer measured 32″ of snow from Thursday’s persistent lake effect snowband.

I wasn’t surprised.

Winter weather in the Buffalo area is brutal. The city itself gets ‘only’ around 80″ of snow per year. The snow belt south of town can get as much as 150″. East of Lake Ontario, closer to Syracuse, it’s even worse.

The area east of Lake Ontario is the “snow capital” of the east. The higher elevations between Watertown and Syracuse, commonly known as the Tug Hill Plateau, receives of more than 200 inches a year. In fact, the town of Hooker, located in Lewis county, recorded 466 inches of snow during the winter of 1976-77! – source: National Weather Service Buffalo Forecast Office

I lived in Buffalo from 1980 through 1984. I will never forget those winters. It seemed to snow nearly every day even if only flurries.

The best way to explain Buffalo’s Lake Effect snow is with a little story. It was the day Helaine and I got our marriage license. We were living in Buffalo. We were getting married in Pennsylvania. The closest place to get a license was Erie, PA, about 100 miles away.

As we left our apartment skies were cloudy. By South Buffalo there were flurries. We paid our toll and got on the New York State Thruway. We passed West Seneca in heavy snow.

I was used to Western New York driving conditions so we continued southwest on the Thruway paralleling Lake Erie’s shoreline. By Dunkirk the snow was back down to flurries. Soon we were in bright sunshine. I remember the skies over Erie being blue and cloud free!

We paid our money, showed our blood tests (another story for another day–blood tests almost kept us from getting married) and got our license.

As we headed back to Buffalo every bit of weather was in the exact same place we left it!

From Erie’s sunshine we hit flurries in Dunkirk. Over the course of a few miles the snow ramped up in intensity. It was snowing heavily as we passed through West Seneca then back to flurries by South Buffalo. I parked under cloudy skies back at our Gates Circle apartment where there was no sign any new snow had fallen.

That’s the power of Lake Effect snow: Persistence!

Lake Effect snow bands are often just a few miles wide, but within those few miles snowfall rates of 4 or 5 inches per hour are possible. The strength of cold air aloft and alignment of wind decides where the snow goes and its intensity. The wind needs a long ‘fetch’ over Lake Erie to be effective as a snow maker. That limits where Lake Effect snow can fall.

As long as the cold wind blows the snow can fall for hours or even days! A few miles often decides whether you get feet of snow or just a dusting.

There are only a handful of places in the world where this setup of cold air and properly aligned body of water exist. Buffalo and Syracuse just got lucky I guess.

7 thoughts on “My Lake Effect Snow Story”

  1. growing up in syracuse in the 60s , i didn’t know from “lake effect”. it was winter upstate. it’s what we had every year. as a kid you could make a decent chunk of cash shoveling. i did. and it led to non -seasonal jobs in my teens at acme and chicago markets. the 60s were a special time..we didn’t know that the government lied or that the beatles were an exquisite marketing ploy or that the american dream was a sham. i miss the 60s.

  2. Geoff, I have to say you do have some interesting stories. You’re going to have to remember them for when you have grandchildren….I’m sure they will enjoy
    listening to them too.


    1. Marie – One of the main reasons I write the blog is to document my life. Not sure who will care, but I enjoy writing.

  3. Great story, as you can attest, WNY is very flat and generally doesnt get a crazy icy mix, so people go about their business as usual and can get around unless there is a crazy event like this. I grew up in Brookfield, CT moved to Bflo in 1999 and just moved back to Hartford (for work). I joke w/ my family that in 6 of the 12 years I lived in Buffalo they had more snow here in CT than there (how about that!!). Once the lakes freeze, the snow generally dies down and its just the winter wind to contend with. Oh, and thanks for getting the story right on the telecast the other night. The City of Buffalo got a dusting while places like West Seneca got 2-3 feet.

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