Understanding Lake Effect Storms

Towns and cities located near lakes receive a lot of their precipitation from a weather phenomenon known as lake effect. This weather is responsible for snowstorms, strong winds, and whiteout conditions during the winter months and is extremely common anywhere near a large body of water. The northeastern and Great Lakes regions of the U.S are most susceptible to lake effect storms throughout the winter and, as evidenced by the recent snowstorms in northeast, these storms can have a severe impact on communities. Lake effect storms generally generate large amounts of precipitation and can create weather that extends well beyond the originating area.

Defining Lake Effect

Lake effect, very briefly, is a weather phenomenon that occurs when cool atmospheric conditions produce cool winds that move across a warmer lake. This creates energy and water vapor that soon freezes and drops down to the shoreline. When this air is uplifted in higher elevations, more intense precipitation can occur. The prevalence of lake effect storms are related to numerous atmospheric variables in different regions. Atmospheric instability, wind shear, upwind moisture, and topography are each critical in creating conditions for lake effect storms.

Lake Effect and the Snow Belt

The Great Lakes region and the northeastern U.S experience some of the most intense annual snowstorms due to lake effect precipitation. Severe blizzards and snowfall records are common, and these regions are prone to some of the wettest conditions in the country. Many lakes in the region rarely freeze and experience sustained, heavy lake effect snow during the winter. The Midwestern snow belt could be considered to comprise the inhabited areas around Lake Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Here, prolonged lake effect can result in serious winter snowfall, often leading to blizzard conditions in mere minutes with the potential to last days.

Planning for Snow

When you reside in these regions where annual lake effect snow is part of the season, planning for big storms becomes a way of life. Since lake effect precipitation can blast an area with snow and freezing temperatures in a short span of time, taking ongoing preparation steps throughout the winter is a good idea. Keep plenty of ice melt and sturdy shovels on hand, plan for whiteout conditions and emergencies in transit, and make sure that your home is in condition to handle heavy, wet snowfall. Always take initiatives to remove snow and ice from structures as soon as possible to prevent damages. Always have emergency supplies available and be prepared to self-rescue anywhere–whether at home or in a vehicle. Lake effect snow is a powerful force and can compromise infrastructure and personal safety, so be sure to prepare accordingly this winter.