The Great Lake Effect

by Steven Bodnar

When cold air passes over the warmer waters of a lake, the result is lake effect snow. Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird and Assistant Professor of Geoscience Nick Metz recently co-authored two scientific journal articles on the subject in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and International Journal of Climatology.

Their article, “The Ontario Winter Lakeeffect Systems (OWLeS) Field Project,” details an extensive scientific field project that brought together several colleges, universities and agencies from across the country to collaborate on winter weather research in the Lake Ontario and Finger Lakes regions.

“The article provides an overview of the OWLeS field project and future pathways for research,” says Metz. “It was the largest project of its kind and so much data was collected that people will be analyzing it for years to come.”

The article outlines how the project collected unprecedented observations of highly complex lakeeffect snow events by dispensing instrumentation for measuring atmospheric data, deploying Doppler on Wheels radar, using the University of Wyoming King Air research aircraft, and implementing other datacollecting efforts. The team also collaborated with the National Weather Service to enhance data analysis, modeling and forecasting.

“There were about 10 HWS students involved with the field research and another 12 to 15 HWS students involved with the data analysis,” says Metz. “They have been able to work with some unique datasets and try to unravel the processes that contributed to heavy, often difficult to forecast, lake-effect snow events. Our students have been able to step out beyond the classroom and do hands-on research with faculty. The students universally rose to the challenge.”

For example, during lake-effect snow events, HWS student researchers worked shifts in extreme cold and wind to launch weather balloons at locations across western and central New York to collect meteorological data such as wind speed and temperature throughout the atmosphere.

Former student researchers from the OWLeS project now find themselves breaking additional ground in the atmospheric science community. Macy Howarth ’16 is working toward her master’s at SUNY Albany and plans to continue on to a Ph.D. program. “Being a graduate student is a lot about taking what you learn in the classroom and applying it to your research, making the connections, and being independent. I was fortunate at HWS to have several opportunities to pursue research and learn these skills prior to actually being a graduate student,” she says. “Both Nick Metz and Neil Laird have been invaluable to my education, and I cannot thank them enough.”

The climatology journal article, “Climatology of cold season lake-effect cloud bands for the North American Great Lakes,” uses satellite imagery to provide a comprehensive climatological description of the seasonal and interannual variability of lake effect cloud bands. It also provides an unmatched database related to the occurrence of coldseason lake effects in the Great Lakes region.

The study found that across the cold season, about 60 to 80 percent of days per month have lake effect clouds over some portion of the Great Lakes region and on lake effect days, nearly 75 percent had lake effect activity present over several lakes simultaneously.

“This shows that lake effect is a substantial part of the wintertime Great Lakes weather,” Metz says. “And it quantifies how much lake effect varies in any particular winter and how much it varies from one winter to another.”

“The student involvement on this project was substantial and included many students spanning across several summer research programs at HWS,” says Laird.

Metz adds: “HWS is a unique institution where students can start very early as undergraduates working on research and meaningfully complement their academic year studies.”


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