The Buffalo-based National Weather Service took an unusually serious tone in its forecast, writing that the event could be “paralyzing.” A rapid buildup of 36 hours is expected between Thursday and Saturday, with thunderstorms and near-blizzard conditions. The heaviest snowfall is expected late Thursday through Friday night.
Snowfall rates can become excessive—more than 2 to 3 inches per hour—beyond even the fastest snowplow or blower. Heavy snow and wind gusts of up to 35 mph will severely limit visibility.
“Travel will become difficult or impossible,” the Bureau of Meteorology warned. “Some major roads may be temporarily closed.”
Liz Jurkowski, a meteorologist with the Buffalo Weather Service, said the office is working hard to spread the message it stands for to local agencies. “It’s going to be a big deal,” she told The Washington Post.
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Complicating the predictions is the localized nature of lake-effect snowfall, which falls in bands only a few miles wide. Like summer thunderstorms, this means that one community can be hit hard while nearby communities are left untouched—instead of a downpour, it’s snow.
Lake Effect Snow Warnings are in effect for normally vulnerable snow belts downwind of lakes and provide winter storm watches or winter weather forecasts in surrounding counties. This is where forecasters are less confident that the snow belt will meander, but warnings have been issued to raise awareness of the possibility of a larger impact.
Accumulation is expected to be about 2 to 3 feet within the Buffalo city limits; however, the Weather Service warns that if the main snow belt persists, snow accumulations could reach 4 feet. Only 30 miles south, maybe 2 to 4 inches.
Outside Lake Ontario, the largest totals will pile up near Watertown, a city of about 25,000 people in western New York, and east of Chaumont and Henderson Bays in the north. Typically 1 to 3 feet is possible, but more cannot be ruled out.
Outside the two major snow belts, cities including Rochester and Geneva, or farther north in Old Forge or Utica, may only see an inch or two of snow.
Instigating the snow is a persistent aloft disturbance, or a gust of frigid air, low pressure and high-altitude rotation. It sits in the rapids and will pass over the Great Lakes on Thursday. It will then continue swooping east-southeast, spinning directly over Lake Ontario before crossing New England.
The positioning of this upper level system will direct a steady westerly-southwest wind across the extent of the lake. In stark contrast to water temperatures below 50 degrees, the bitingly cold air blowing lengthwise along the water’s surface will lift large amounts of moisture into the atmosphere. This will brew moderate to strong convection, or vertical heat transfer; in other words, the same process that produces summer thunderstorms, except for snowfall.
The same general atmospheric structure that will bury Buffalo and Watertown will also unleash a cold snap into the northeastern United States, with frigid temperatures in stark contrast to the unseasonably mild previous week.
Jurkowski compared the looming blizzard to a record-breaking blizzard in mid-November 2014, when 88 inches of snow fell. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, New York, schools in Buffalo were closed for more than a week and Interstate 90 was closed. Twenty-six people died in the storm, most from heart attacks while shoveling snow. The New York National Guard was called in to assist with snow removal.
“Have [another event of this magnitude] In 2000, we compare it to 2000,” Jurkowski said. “Before that, some of the things that happened in the 1980s. They don’t happen very often. “
She explained that the heaviest snowfall will begin on Thursday night, but the snow band should continue into Sunday.
“The band might swing north on Saturday but then south on Sunday,” she explained, referring to subtle changes in wind patterns. “We’re not just looking at a twelve-hour event or a day. It’s days.”
Buffalo averages about 90 inches of snow a year, and while residents are used to snowfall, Jurgoswki is trying to remind people that it’s a different level.
“People here know that the lake effect can [be] It’s very localized, depending on how the wind blows, but we all have to be prepared to be safe,” she said.