Research News

Study probes history of famed lake effect snow

Elizabeth K. Thomas (right), assistant professor of geology, and geology master’s student Megan Corcoran collect lake effect snow samples from the roof of Cooke Hall. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published January 22, 2018

“Accurate predictions about how lake effect snowstorms could change in frequency and magnitude could help municipalities properly prepare for future storms.”
Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor
Department of Geology

Lake effect snowfall is one of nature’s greatest snow machines: It happens when cold winds flow over warmer water, giving rise to intense bands of precipitation that can dump several feet of snow on a single location in hours or days.

A new UB study aims to learn more about this phenomenon, which has sired some of the Great Lakes region’s most epic weather events — including a 2014 storm that buried parts of Western New York under 7 feet of snow.

The ultimate goal of the research is to understand whether lake effect snow will become more frequent or intense in coming decades as the Earth warms.

“Our objective is to investigate what lake effect snow did in the past so we can do a better job of predicting how it will behave in the future,” says Elizabeth K. Thomas, assistant professor of geology, College of Arts and Sciences. “There was a time about 10,000 years ago when temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were about 1 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times. We are developing tools that will enable us to discover whether lake effect snowfall was heavier during this ancient period of warmth.”

The work is important because lake effect snow can be costly and dangerous to communities that lie in the path of these storms. For example, the 2014 event in Western New York killed 14 people, shut down part of the New York State Thruway and damaged hundreds of buildings.

“Accurate predictions about how lake effect snowstorms could change in frequency and magnitude could help municipalities properly prepare for future storms,” Thomas says.

Master's student Megan Corcoran assists in collecting samples and logging data. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Probing history of lake effect snow

Thomas’ team, including geology master’s student Megan Corcoran, intends to hunt for clues in an unexpected place: the remains of ancient leaves, which lie buried in the soil at the bottom of ponds and lakes.

The scientists will look in particular at ancient leaf waxes. Such waxes, which form a protective coating on leaves, are made from materials, including hydrogen atoms, that are derived from water found in soil or lakes.

Rain, lake effect snow and non-lake effect snow contain slightly different forms of hydrogen, so the hydrogen atoms found in ancient leaf waxes in different geographic locations could yield information on what kind of precipitation a region received in ancient times.

As Thomas explains, “Rain, lake effect snow and ‘normal’ winter snow contain different percentages of a rare, heavy form of hydrogen called deuterium. As a result, we should be able to look at the different forms of hydrogen found in ancient leaf waxes to try and determine what percentage of the precipitation in an area fell as rain, and what percentage as snow or lake effect snow, during a given period.”

The answer to these questions can help elucidate whether lake effect snowstorms were more common during times of ancient global warmth.

Elizabeth Thomas points to several test tubes in a centrifuge. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

A focus on upstate New York

Thomas’ research focuses on upstate New York, one of the most notorious locations for this kind of weather event.

To gather data, Thomas and her team set up sediment traps in lakes in locations that are often in the path of lake effect snowstorms.

The first phase of the project — already underway — is to establish how the makeup of leaf waxes generated by plants today relates to precipitation trends in the study region.

Later, these data will be used as a comparison point for future research that will examine how lake effect snowfall patterns may have differed during ancient times.

The work is supported by the New York Great Lakes Protection Fund Small Grants Program, and the team plans to leverage results from the current project to seek funding to expand the research to reconstruct historical lake effect snowfall trends.


Welcome to the tradition of snow studies in Western New York. You might avail yourself of the significant collection of local data developed by Project SNOW funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce at nearby Calspan (partner in Calspan UB Research Center, CUBRC) in the 1970s. Numerous specimens of snow were acquired and analyzed, along with aircraft seeding of rising plumes over Lake Erie. Study was curtailed when local ski slope owners sued, noting re-distribution of snow from historical patterns. The Buffalo Museum of Science holds the original snowflake photo collection of Wilson Bentley.


Robert Baier