The National Weather Service in Buffalo took an unusually serious tone in its forecast, writing that the episode could be “dissolved.” A 36-hour period of rapid accumulation, ending with thunderstorms and near-snow showers, is expected between Thursday and Saturday. Heavy snow is expected late Thursday through Friday night.
Snowfall rates can be extreme — 2 to 3 inches per hour — outpacing even the fastest shovel or snowplow. A combination of heavy snow and winds of up to 35 mph will severely limit visibility.
The weather service warned that “travel is difficult to impossible”. “Some major highways may be temporarily closed.”
Liz Yurkowski, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in Buffalo, said the office is trying to get the word out to local agencies it supports. “It’s going to be a big event,” he told The Washington Post.
Southern California sees winds of more than 80 mph, fire danger during Santa Ana winds
Complicating the forecast is the local nature of the lake snow, which extends in bands only a few miles. Like thunderstorms in the summer, this means that one community can be hit while a neighboring neighborhood is unaffected – instead of rain, a lot of snow.
A lake snow advisory is in effect for the typically vulnerable snow belt downstream of the lakes with a winter storm watch or winter weather advisory for surrounding counties. That’s where forecasters are less confident about the snowpack’s rotation, but have warned to raise awareness of the possibility of more impacts.
Accumulations are expected to be 2 to 3 feet within the Buffalo city limits; However, the weather service warned that amounts could reach 4 feet if the main snow band extends. Just 30 miles to the south, only 2 to 4 inches is possible.
Along Lake Ontario, the heaviest accumulations east of Chaumont and Henderson bays are concentrated near and north of Watertown, a city of about 25,000 in western New York. The general probability is 1 to 3 feet, although more cannot be ruled out.
Outside of the two main snow bands, cities including Rochester and Geneva, or farther north in Old Forge or Utica, may only get an inch or two.
A blizzard is a stubborn high-altitude disturbance or pocket of cold, low-pressure, high-rotation air. It is embedded in the jet stream and will be over the Great Lakes on Thursday. It then continues to dip east-southeast, hovering directly over Lake Ontario before passing over New England.
The location of this upper level system will direct a steady flow of west-southwest winds across the lakes. That bone-chilling air along the length of the water, with water temperatures in the lower 50s, allows a steady amount of moisture to rise into the atmosphere. This produces moderate to strong convection, or vertical heat transfer; in other words, the same processes that create thunder and lightning in summer, except for snow.
The same general atmospheric structure that is expected to bury Buffalo and Watertown is also producing a cold blast in the northeastern United States, with wintry temperatures defying a week of unseasonable weather.
Yurkowski compared the upcoming storm to a record-breaking event in mid-November 2014, which dumped up to 88 inches of snow. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, New York, schools in Buffalo were closed for more than a week and Interstate 90 was shut down. Twenty-six people died as a result of the storm, mostly as a result of heart attacks that occurred during the snowfall. The New York National Guard was brought in to help clear the snow.
“There is [another event of this magnitude] in 2000, we compare it to that,” Yurkovsky said. “Before this, a few things in the 80s. They don’t happen often.”
He explained that the heaviest snow will begin Thursday night, but the snow band should continue through Sunday.
“The group may dip north on Saturday, but then it will move south on Sunday,” he said, referring to the subtle shift in wind patterns. “We’re not just looking at a twelve-hour event or a day. It’s been a few days.”
Buffalo averages about 90 inches of snow a year, and while residents are used to snow, Jurgoswki tried to remind people that this is on a different level.
“The surrounding people know very well that the lake can have an effect [be] It’s very local and depends on the wind, but we all have to be prepared to be on the safe side,” he said.