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Mid-November Lake-Effect Snow Explained

Sw Lake Effect
Nw Lake Effect

Last week, Northern Michigan felt temperatures plummet from record highs in the 70s, down into the 20s. The cold air was an arctic air mass with a series of small low-pressure systems.

Southwest winds created bands of lake-effect snow for several days. Areas in the Tip of the Mitt and Lower Michigan saw the most snowfall.

With the cold air, most of Northern Michigan saw snow … and for some lots of it!

The cold air flowing across the warmer lakes was a great set-up for lake-effect snow, but what exactly is lake-effect snow?

When cold air moves over the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, it picks up moisture along the way. The larger the temperature difference, the larger the instability, which ends up being heavy snow.

More snow is also produced over an area that is next to a longer/wider lake.

Northwest Winds created more lake-effect snow for the same areas that already saw several inches of accumulation

That’s why Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York recorded 36.7 inches (just over 3 feet!) after the event was over Monday. The amount of snow Buffalo was forecast to get even caused the NFL to move the Buffalo Bills game to Ford Field in Detroit!

Because Buffalo sits at the eastern end of Lake Erie, the cold air had a chance to collect nearly 240 miles worth of moisture! The shortest distance needed to get lake-effect is only about 46 miles. Just South of Buffalo, Hamburg NY received 81.2″ Just an incredible number, all from lake-effect!

Wednesday Through Sunday

On Wednesday, The Doppler 9&10 Weather Team was predicting several inches of snow due to a system and some extra snow from the lakes.

By Thursday afternoon, there were two small, low-pressure systems over Michigan, bringing winds out of the west and southwest. The winds remained from the southwest and west through Saturday afternoon.

Saturday night, Nov.19, the winds shifted and began blowing out of the northwest, shifting the lake-effect to different locations and bringing colder temperatures to enter the region.

By the end of the event, the heaviest snow had fallen over Northwestern Lower and along the western Lower peninsula.

Cadillac saw 15.5 inches since Nov. 16, while places like East Jordan saw nearly 3 feet!

The snow total may seem higher than what is outside your window thanks to the wind blowing the snow around and some melting.

Fascinating Formations

Not only were the snow totals impressive in the five-day event, but the winds and water also created another interesting sight.

Meteorologists call it a meso-low or cyclonic vortex.

Some people noted the event to be so strong it seemed like a hurricane! While the rotation is in the same direction as a hurricane (counter-clockwise), it isn’t one.

A meso-low is a very small area of low pressure that is caused by rising warm air. In this case, warm air near the surface of the lake was rising as cold air was blowing over. While this is happening, the wind flow combined with the temperature difference between the cold land and the warm water creates the “spin.”

So as the air rises, it moves in the direction the wind blows. Due to the focused dynamics of a meso-low, the resulting snowfall is incredible at 2″ to possibly 3″ per hour. The Doppler 9&10 Weather Team saw two instances of cyclonic vortices on their radar – check it out in the video below!


Enjoy some pictures of the snow sent in by viewers over the weekend!








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