The Lake Effect
Article Written by Olivier Peyre – Posted by Darren Platakis
Today, Geospatial Niagara would like to zoom in on a wonderful local weather phenomenon called the lake effect.
As fall ends and winter starts, you may have seen this phenomenon at work on the horizon while driving on the highway through the Niagara peninsula. Looking south, a gigantic chain of mountainous clouds rises up from the surface of Lake Erie. Though the sky above is clear and sunny, the clouds were high enough to be visible from up to 30km away, as if there were a frozen tsumami threatening the north shore of Lake Erie.
This is the phenomenon of the lake effect, which often occurs towards the end of fall in the Great Lakes region. As the air temperature plummets, the water of the lakes remains warmer due to thermal inertia. But when the western winds blow cold air from the Rocky Mountains towards the Great Lakes, the low temperature of the air meeting the relatively higher temperature of the water generates impressive masses of clouds right above the surface of the lakes.
Drawing up water from Lake Erie, these clouds generally bring significant quantities of snow to the shore. As winds often blow from west to east in this area, the land at the eastern edge of Lake Erie is often the casualty of the phenomenon; the city of Buffalo and its surroundings are directly exposed to the massive snowfall resulting from the lake effect. Schools, transit systems, and administrative offices are then forced to close or interrupt their services at short notice, creating delays that can last from a few hours to an entire day. In the meantime, paradoxically, areas just a few miles north (such as Niagara Falls) can enjoy a blue sky with a clear weather.
To better illustrate the phenomenon, the Geospatial Niagara team had the chance to take the following picture showing the lake effect phenomenon at work. The first pictures have been taken from Highway 58, and looking south, you can see on the horizon a massive range of clouds. It is the lake effect in action, just about fourteen miles south from Highway 58.
The very next day, the lake effect hits again. While another clear blue sky hangs over St. Catharines, you can still see the gigantic and threatening dome of clouds rising up from Lake Erie on the horizon as we drive south from Ridley Heights.
The lake effect is more than a local phenomenon. While it is pretty common in the Great Lakes region, it is particularly felt in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area, where the urban development and population density expose more people to the consequences of the lake effect. Consequently, similar to the notorious grey skies of London and the hurricanes that strike the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast, the lake effect has become part of the local identity of the Buffalo-Niagara region. Some local business such as the famous Lake Effect Diner in Buffalo even reference the phenomenon as their own local brand.