Why Buffalo’s blizzard could never happen in N.E.

Snow was piled high on a vehicle and houses in the south Buffalo area on Thursday.
Mike Groll/AP
Snow was piled high on a vehicle and houses in the south Buffalo area on Thursday.

Buffalo has Lake Erie. New England has the Atlantic Ocean.

There lies the biggest reason why an epic storm like the one socking a sliver of upstate New York this week with 6, 7 and even 8 feet of snow in some places, is so unlikely to ever happen here.

They get what’s called “lake effect” snows. We get — say it together now — nor’easters.


Meteorogically, they are as different as New England and Manhattan clam chowder.

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Lake effect snow is common in the fall and early winter when the temperature difference between the warm lakes and the colder air aloft reaches its peak.

Typically a lake effect snow is localized, meaning one community can be hammered by heavy snowfall while its neighbor escapes with only a few flakes. That explains why one side of Cheektowaga, N.Y. is getting only a few inches while the other side is up to five feet. Imagine Newton Highlands getting a blizzard and Newton Corner getting a dusting.

As a deep surge of cold air moves in over the lakes, it connects with warmer lake waters. When the two meet, the warmer air begins to rise and it cools as it does. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture, clouds form and the moisture is squeezed out as snowfall, with the heaviest snow falling on the southern and eastern side of the lakes.

The set up this week around Buffalo was perfect for potent lake effect snow. Temperatures were 15 to 25 degrees below average, the lakes were close to 25 degrees warmer than the cold air surging overhead, and that combination helped to create thundersnow. Yes, thundersnow is the equivalent of thunderstorms in the summer, and can add extra energy to the lake effect machine and produce debilitating snowfall totals.


Rates can easily exceed 5 inches per hour, much like a thunderstorm produces very heavy rainfall in a short period. With layers of wind moving in the same direction, stacked on top of each other like pancakes, from the surface, higher up through the atmosphere, conditions aligned to create perfect conditions for heavy snowfall.

With no giant lake, New England will never see lake effect snow. But the Atlantic can still pack a powerful punch in the form of a nor’easter.

Unlike a small but powerful lake effect snow, which can materialize in a matter of a few hours, nor’easters cover huge swaths as they race up the east coast. And they can be monitored for days and often arrive in stages: wind, sleet, snow.

Deriving their name from the north-easterly winds, they are most common in late fall and early spring, similar to lake effect snow. This time of year is when temperature differences vary the most, as cold arctic air from Canada collides with warmer air from the ocean, causing strong winds. The warmer side of the storm is often characterized by rain, ice pellets and sleet, with the heaviest snows falling on the western and northern side of the storm or the cold side.

Just who gets what is determined by the winds. But unlike low-flying lake effect snows, a nor’easter’s winds are close to 30,000 feet high in the atmosphere, and are known to anyone who watches Matt Noyes, Danielle Niles, Harvey Leonard, or any local meteorologist, as the “jet stream.”


Meteorologists call these winds the "storm track” as they help to determine how storms move.

Bostonians no doubt remember Nemo, the 2013 nor’easter that slammed New England with close to 25 inches of snow, in some places more. Winds knocked out power to close to a million people. Logan International Airport recorded a 76 mph gust.

It can’t get much worse than that here.

Remember that as Buffalo’s snow reaches the height of Boston Celtics’ 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, with more lake effect snow in the forecast. Storm totals could reach 100 inches by the end of Friday.

For New Yorkers, it’s recalling memories of Oswego, in February 2007. Ten days of lake effect snow buried communities such as Redfield, a three-hour drive from Buffalo off the shore of another Great Lake, Lake Ontario. That one dropped 141 inches, almost 12 feet.

Related coverage:

Some areas of Buffalo could get nearly 8 feet of snow

Graphic: Inside the Buffalo-area snowstorm

The Big Picture: Snow buries Buffalo

Drone video shows extent of snowfall near Buffalo

Michelle Leslie is a meteorologist and a Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School in the University of Toronto.