Study to probe the history of New York State’s famed lake effect snow

Researcher Elizabeth Thomas working with a machine in her lab.

An accelerated solvent extractor in the lab of UB Assistant Professor of Geology Elizabeth Thomas. This machine removes leaf waxes and other organic material from sediment samples. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo

Project will lay the foundation for understanding how lake effect snowfall could change in a warming world

Release Date: February 1, 2018 This content is archived.

Close-up of a tube of snow in a researcher's hands.
A cylinder filled with white snow.

A sample of snow collected from the rooftop of UB’s Cooke Hall. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — 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 a matter of days.

A new study at the University at Buffalo aims to learn more about this phenomenon, which has sired some of the Great Lakes region’s most epic weather events — including back-to-back storms in 2014 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, PhD, assistant professor of geology in the UB 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 storms. For example, the 2014 event in Western New York shut down part of the New York State Thruway, damaged hundreds of buildings and was blamed for 14 deaths.

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

Probing the history of lake effect snow

A strip of clouds over a lake and city.

A lake effect snowstorm as viewed from an airplane over the Buffalo region on Nov. 18, 2014. Credit: Jeffrey Suhr. Media may republish image with credit

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.

A hand pointing at a cylinder collecting snow.

A team led by UB Assistant Professor of Geology Elizabeth Thomas has set up equipment for collecting snow samples on the rooftop of UB’s Cooke Hall. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo

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, which 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.

A focus on Upstate New York

Two researchers in lab coats.

The research team includes UB geology master’s student Megan Corcoran (left) and UB Assistant Professor of Geology Elizabeth Thomas (right), who is leading the project. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

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.

A hand holding a small glass vial.

A sample of leaf waxes extracted from lake sediments. Leaf waxes hold clues about the history of precipitation in the region. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

The first phase of the project — already underway — is to establish how the make-up 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 Corcoran's work on the project was funded by the UB Geology Duane Champion Award and the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities at UB. The team plans to leverage results from the current project to seek funding to expand the research to reconstruct historical lake effect snowfall trends.

Tubes holding sediment samples.

Samples of lake water and sediment collected from a lake in Central New York, where lake effect snowfall is a common occurrence. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.