The National Weather Service in Buffalo is taking an unusually grave tone in its forecast, writing that the episode could be “crippling.” A 36-hour period of rapid accumulation, complete with thundersnow and near-blizzard conditions, is expected to ensue between Thursday and Saturday. The heaviest snow is anticipated late Thursday through Friday night.
Snowfall rates could become excessive — topping 2 to 3 inches per hour — outpacing even the fastest shoveler or snowblower. The combination of heavy snow and winds gusting up to 35 mph will greatly restrict visibility.
“Travel will be difficult to impossible,” the Weather Service warned. “Some major roadways could temporarily close.”
Liz Jurkowski, a meteorologist at the Weather Service in Buffalo, said the office is hustling to spread the word to local agencies that it supports. “This will be a major event,” she told The Washington Post.
Complicating forecasts is the localized nature of lake-effect snow, which will fall in bands only a few miles wide. Like summertime thunderstorms, that means one community could be pounded while a nearby neighborhood remains untouched — except instead of by a downpour, by staggering amounts of snow.
Lake-effect snow warnings are in effect for the typically-vulnerable snow belts downwind of the lakes, with winter storm watches or winter weather advisories in surrounding counties. That is where forecasters are less confident in the snow band meandering, but have hoisted alerts to raise awareness about the possibility of greater impacts.
Accumulations are expected to be around 2 to 3 feet within the city limits of Buffalo; however, amounts could reach 4 feet if the main snow band lingers, the Weather Service cautioned. Just 30 miles to the south, only 2 to 4 inches is likely.
Off Lake Ontario, the heaviest totals will stack up east of Chaumont and Henderson bays near and north of Watertown, a city of roughly 25,000 in western New York. A general 1 to 3 feet is probable, though more can’t be ruled out.
Outside the two main snow bands, cities including Rochester and Geneva, or farther north in Old Forge or Utica, may see only an inch or two of accumulation.
Instigating the wild snows is a stubborn high altitude disturbance, or a pocket of frigid air, low pressure and spin aloft. It’s nestled within a dip in the jet stream and will be situated over the Great Lakes on Thursday. Then it will continue diving east-southeast, pivoting directly over Lake Ontario before swinging through New England.
The positioning of that upper-level system will direct a steady flow of west-southwesterly winds along the entire fetch of the lakes. That bone-chilling air blowing lengthwise along the water, contrasted against water temperatures in the lower 50s, will allow robust amounts of moisture to ascend into the atmosphere. That will brew moderate to strong convection, or vertical heat transfer; in other words, the same processes that generate summer thunderstorms, except snow will fall.
The same overarching atmospheric setup that’s set to bury Buffalo and Watertown will also unleash a blast of cold to the northeastern United States, with wintry temperatures contrasting sharply to unseasonable balminess the week prior.
Jurkowski compared the looming snowstorm to a record-crushing event in mid-November 2014, which dumped up to 88 inches of snow. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, N.Y., schools were closed for more than a week in Buffalo, and Interstate 90 was shut down. Twenty-six people died due to the storm, mostly as a result of heart attacks that occurred while shoveling snow. The New York National Guard was brought in to assist with snow removal.
“There’s [another event of this magnitude] in 2000 we’re comparing it to,” said Jurkowski. “Before that a few things in the 1980s. They don’t occur very often.”
She explained that the heaviest snow will start Thursday night, but the snow band should last through Sunday.
“The band might waver north on Saturday but then will swing south on Sunday,” she explained, referencing subtle shifts in the wind patterns. “We’re not just looking at a twelve hour event or a day. This is multiple days.”
Buffalo averages about 90 inches of snow per year, and while residents are used to snowfall, Jurgoswki sought to remind folks that this is of a different level.
“People around here pretty well know that lake effects can [be] very localized and depend on how the wind blows, but we all will have to be prepared just to be on the safe side,” she said.