The National Weather Service in Buffalo takes an unusually serious tone in its forecast, writing that the episode could be “crippling.” A 36-hour period of rapid accumulation is expected between Thursday and Saturday, complete with thunderstorms and near snowstorms. The heaviest snow is expected late overnight Thursday through Friday.
Snowfall rates can become exorbitant — up to 2 to 3 inches per hour — even faster than the fastest shoveler or snow blower. The combination of heavy snowfall and wind gusts up to 35 mph will limit visibility significantly.
“Travel will be difficult to impossible,” the weather service warned. “Some major roads may be temporarily closed.”
Liz Jurkowski, a meteorologist with the Weather Service in Buffalo, said the office is busy spreading the news to the local agencies it supports. “This is going to be a major event,” she told The Washington Post.
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Complicating forecasts is the local nature of lake-effect snow, which will fall in bands only a few miles wide. Like summer thunderstorms, this means a community can be hit while a nearby neighborhood remains unaffected—except instead of a downpour, by dizzying 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’s where forecasters are less confident about the meandering snow band, but have raised warnings to raise awareness about the possibility of bigger impacts.
Accumulations are expected to be about 2 to 3 feet within Buffalo city limits; however, amounts could be as high as four feet if the main snow band sticks, the Weather Service warned. Just 30 miles south, only 2 to 4 inches is likely.
At Lake Ontario, the heaviest totals will pile up east of Chaumont and Henderson Bays near and north of Watertown, a city of about 25,000 in western New York. A general 1 to 3 feet is likely, although more cannot be ruled out.
Outside of the two main snow bands, cities like Rochester and Geneva, or further north in Old Forge or Utica, may see just an inch or two of accumulation.
Inciting the wild snow is a persistent high-altitude disturbance, or a pocket of icy air, low pressure, and spin aloft. Nestled in a dip in the jet stream, it will be over the Great Lakes on Thursday. After that, it will continue to dive from east to southeast, turning directly over Lake Ontario before swinging through New England.
The positioning of that upper-level system will direct a steady stream of west-southwesterly winds all along the uplift of the lakes. That chilling air blowing lengthwise along the water, as opposed to water temperatures in the lower 50s, will allow large amounts of moisture to rise into the atmosphere. That provides moderate to strong convection or vertical heat transfer; in other words, the same processes that cause summer thunderstorms, except snow will fall.
The same overarching atmospheric setup that will bury Buffalo and Watertown will also unleash a cold wind across the northeastern United States, with wintry temperatures contrasting sharply with the week’s unseasonable mugginess.
Jurkowski compared the impending blizzard to a record-shattering event in mid-November 2014, dumping up to 88 inches of snow. While the jackpot was in Wyoming County, NY, schools in Buffalo were closed for over a week and Interstate 90 was shut down. Twenty-six people died as a result of the storm, mostly due to heart attacks that occurred while shoveling snow. The New York National Guard was called in to assist with snow removal.
‘There is [another event of this magnitude] in 2000 we compare it to,” Jurkowski said. “Before that, a few things in the eighties. They don’t come up very often.”
She explained that the heaviest snow will begin Thursday night, but the snow band should last through Sunday.
“The band may teeter north on Saturday, but will swing south on Sunday,” she explained, referring to subtle shifts in the wind patterns. “We are not just looking at a 12-hour or a day event. These are several days.”
Buffalo averages about three feet of snow per year, and while residents are used to snowfall, Jurgoswki tried to remind people that this is on another level.
“People around here know pretty well that lake effects can do that [be] very localized and depending on how the wind is blowing, but we will all have to be prepared to be on the safe side,” she said.