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Predicting A Lake Effect Storm

Cheektowaga, NY (WBEN) - It's easy to complain about winter weather, but you can't say that we weren't prepared for the Lake Effect Blizzard.

National Weather Service Senior Forecaster Jon Hitchcock says that the conditions were perfect for accurately predicting Western New York's latest weather event.

"Lake effect snow is never easy to forecast, but this one was really a classic setup," Hitchcock said. "We knew that we were going to have very, very cold air coming over a relatively warmer lake... and that produces a band of lake effect snow. Then, getting the wind direction precisely correct is also very important in determining where the snow will be."

The wind direction is important because bands of lake effect snow are usually only five to 10 miles wide, meaning that one area of any given municipality may see tremendous snowfall while another sees very little. Because of that, compared to general storms which impact a greater area, there's less room for error when predicting when and where lake effect will strike.

But modern technology has made it easier to predict Lake Effect, so we can all be prepared when Lake Erie decides to give the gift of snow. "There's several pieces of technology that allow us to forecast lake effect snow," Hitchcock says. "One was actually developed right here in Buffalo. It's a piece of software called Bufkit, and it was originally designed just for lake effect snow, but it's really increased in to all aspects of forecasting and that software that was developed here is used all over the world now."

New research being conducted on Lake Ontario could further change how we predict lake effect.

The OWLeS (Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems) project examines the formation mechanisms and dynamics of lake effect systems at unprecedented detail. OWLeS is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a collaborative effort of nine universities. As snows begin to fall along the shores of Lake Ontario, the researchers will head out to collect data. The results will lead to increased predictability of, and preparedness for, lake effect snow.

While Hitchcock and others wait for more breakthroughs in Lake Effect research, right now there are a few things they know for sure, including that we're not out of the woods just yet. "The lake over the last few days has actually gained a lot of ice cover. During the day on Tuesday, it was probably the most rapid ice generation I've ever seen on Lake Erie, you could literally see it before your eyes beginning to ice over. It's still very early for Lake Erie to ice over. On average it usually ices over at the end of January or beginning of February, and we're going to have some more mild weather this weekend, so I think we're still on track for a pretty typical complete ice-over by late in the month. In a few more weeks there should be enough ice to largely shut down the lake effect machine."

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