Buffalo Belted With Five Feet of Snow; Is Jet Stream Weirdness to Blame?
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:30 PM GMT on November 19, 2014
America’s remarkable mid-November Arctic blast continued Wednesday morning, with hundreds of daily record low temperatures falling again. Charlotte, North Carolina bottomed out at 14°F, the coldest temperature ever measured so early in the season, and January-like cold brought temperatures 15 – 35°F below average to most of the eastern half of the country. Hardest hit by the unseasonably early Arctic outbreak was Buffalo, New York, where a record lake effect snowstorm was being blamed for at least five deaths. Three of the deaths were from heart attacks, one from a traffic accident, and one was a 46-year old man who was found dead in his stranded car. Up to five feet of snow fell along the south and east sides of the city in the 24 hours ending at 10 pm EST Tuesday, thanks to an intense band of heavy lake effect snow coming off of Lake Erie. The extreme snow band was very narrow; in the 24 hours when Lancaster on the city’s east side was pummeled with 60″ of snow, the Buffalo Airport, just six miles to the northwest, received only 3.9″. Extreme atmospheric instability due to relatively warm waters in the lake were responsible for the intensity of the storm; water temperatures were 47°F at the Environment Canada Port Colborne buoy at the east end of Lake Erie on Tuesday. A state of emergency has been declared in Erie County, New York, which includes Buffalo, and the National Guard has been called out to help dig people out. Thankfully, the band of heavy snow responsible for the extreme accumulations shifted northwards out of the city on Wednesday morning, and only minor accumulations will occur during the remainder of Wednesday. On Thursday morning, though, a new lake effect snowstorm will set up. The NWS in Buffalo is forecasting that while this storm will not be quite as intense, up to two feet of additional snow could fall in the same regions that received up to five feet of snow already this week.
Figure 1. A lake effect snow storm brought five feet of snow to Lancaster, New York on November 18, 2014. Image credit: Melinda Stoldt, via Facebook.
Figure 2. Radar loop of an intense lake effect snow band affecting the Buffalo, New York region between 6:36 – 9:07 am EST November 19, 2014. The band, which had been nearly stationary over South Buffalo for over 24 hours, is seen finally lifting northwards out of the city, thanks to a wind shift caused by an approaching trough of low pressure.
Most extreme Lake Erie snowstorm on record?
According to wunderground’s weather historian Christopher C. Burt, yesterday’s snowfall totals near Buffalo may challenge the official 24-hour snowfall record for the state of New York. The State Climate Extremes Committee (SCEC) lists the official record 24-hour snowfall for the state of New York as 49.0” on November 14 – 15, 1900. As of 10 pm EST Tuesday, at least five suburbs of Buffalo on its south and east sides had beaten this mark, recording 51 – 60″ of snow in 24 hours. The champions were was Lancaster and Gardenville, with 60″ of snow in 24 hours. It is yet not clear if any of these reports will be worthy of official status, recognized by the SCEC. Mr. Burt notes, though, that the SCEC is rife with errors and probably should not be taken too seriously. Much greater 24-hour totals have been reported from various observers/sources over the years at multiple locations in New York. The greatest unofficial 24-hour total he is aware of is 68” at Adams, NY on Jan. 9, 1976. Also, 77” fell in Montague Township in 24 hours on Jan. 11 – 12, 1997. This value was discounted by the SCEC as a result of a small technicality due to one too many snow board measurements being taken (7 instead of 6). However, the figure itself was accepted as accurate, but not official since the observer made a small error in the timing of his snow accumulation measurements. Note that all of these record 24-hour snowfalls came in Lake Ontario’s lake effect snow band, where higher terrain helps lift the air streaming off the lake to extract more snow. In Mr. Burt’s words, “So far as Lake Erie events, I think this week’s event one will go down as the most extreme on record.
Figure 3. MODIS satellite image of the lake effect snowstorm over Lake Erie on Tuesday afternoon, November 18, 2014. Strong updrafts due to relatively warm lake waters of 47°F created a towering line of clouds that cast a shadow to their north. Image credit: NASA.
Buffalo’s worst snowstorm: January 1977
This week’s storm did not significantly affect the mid through northern portions of metro Buffalo, including downtown, which is typical for a Lake Erie lake effect snowstorm–the heaviest snow falls south of the city. However, back in January 1977, a 5-day blizzard hit all of Western New York, including Buffalo. The combination of blowing snow, wind and Arctic temperatures resulted in hundreds of people being stranded in their cars. Because of constant whiteout conditions and life threatening wind chills, as well as the fact that nobody had cell phones back then to communicate in an emergency, 29 people lost their lives. Many were asphyxiated in their cars or froze to death from exposure.
Mr. Burt documents the history of lake effect snowstorms in his 2013 post, Lake Effect Snow Totals and Historical Perspective.
Is the jet stream getting weird?
This week’s intense cold blast is being triggered by an unusually extreme jet stream pattern, featuring a sharp ridge of high pressure along the U.S. West Coast and a deep trough of low pressure diving to the south over the Central United States. This configuration allows cold air to spill out of the Arctic behind the trough into the Central U.S., and be replaced by anomalously warm air flowing northwards along the West Coast of the U.S. deep into the Arctic. This extreme jet stream pattern is due, in part, to the influence of Super Typhoon Nuri, which caused a ripple effect on the jet stream after the typhoon became one of the most powerful extratropical storms ever recorded in the waters to the west of Alaska eleven days ago. However, we’ve seen an unusual number of extreme jet stream patterns like this in the past fifteen years, which happens to coincide with the period of time we’ve been observing record loss of summertime Arctic sea ice and record retreat of springtime snow cover in the Arctic. Could it be that these changes in the Arctic are causing the wacky jet stream behavior of recent years? That’s the theory being advanced by a number of prominent climate scientists. I’ve written extensively about the topic, and my most recent post on the subject was in April, California Drought/Polar Vortex Jet Stream Pattern Linked to Global Warming. A updated story that I wrote for the just-published December issue of Scientific American discusses the theory and its detractors, and you can read it on-line for $6 (or buy a copy at the news stand.) My conclusion in the article: If Arctic changes are truly to blame for wacky jet stream behavior, losing the remaining 50 percent of the Arctic sea-ice coverage between now and 2030 will bring even greater antics. If the Arctic is not involved, that is worrisome as well—because that means jet stream changes are due to an unknown mechanism, leaving us with no idea how the jet stream will respond as climate change progresses. Thus, my forecast for the next 15 years: expect the unprecedented.
Video 1. A time-lapse view of Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York during the lake-effect snow storm of November 18, 2014. Note the rising motion of the clouds, showing the extreme instability of the atmosphere due to relatively warm waters at the surface (47°F at the Environment Canada Port Colborne buoy at the east end of Lake Erie.)