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Could lake effect snow be intensified from warmer summers?

Mike Groll
Office of the Governor

Gov. Kathy Hochul described the weekend's snowstorm affecting Buffalo and Watertown as "historic."

“When you hit 80 to 85 inches over the course of just a couple of days snow event. Everywhere from Natural Bridge up in the North Country to Orchard Park, that is one to tell your grandkids about,” Hochul said.

Hochul filed a federal emergency declaration on Saturday for federal assistance in reimbursing costs from the storm. President Joe Biden approved that request Sunday evening.

"I thank President Biden for immediately granting our emergency declaration request and for our ongoing strong partnership as well as Senator Schumer for his assistance in securing relief for New Yorkers," Hochul said in a release. "My team and I will continue working around the clock to keep everyone safe, help communities dig out, and secure every last dollar to help rebuild and recover from this unprecedented, record-shattering historic winter storm."

New York state had filed a similar federal emergency declaration request following the 2014 storm. That declaration took weeks to be approved.

Hochul said she also plans to apply for Small Business Administration assistance, especially for the stores that remain closed or saw damage to their facilities because of the storm.

“They’re taking a financial hit so we’d like to be able to see if we can access a federal small business loan assistance for any of those and certainly those that have had damage to their facilities,” Hochul said.

Watertown Mayor Jeff Smith apologized for the "slower than normal clearing of city streets" during the weekend's snowstorm. He said in a statement that "due to the amount of wet heavy snow that has fallen on the city our plow trucks are having difficulty pushing the snow."

Smith said some plows had even gotten stuck themselves so the department of public works dedicated two crews just to help those plows. Smith thanked the governor for sending more resources for snow removal as the city dealt with an "unprecedented amount of snow" in a short time.

The heavy snow was due to lake effect snow. When the air is colder than the water, parts of the country near lakes can experience heavy snowfalls, or lake effect snow, hitting two to three inches of snow an hour.

Colin Beier, a professor of Sustainable Resources Management at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says it's not out of the ordinary to see lake effect snow throughout the region. He says although lake effect snow is not the result of climate change, it may be stronger due to a warmer summer heating lakes longer.

“It doesn't surprise me that with that big shift to cold air, you still got a warm lake," Beier said. "If it's pointed right at a big city like Buffalo or anywhere it's pointed you're going to get very significant amount of snow right now.”

Beier says the weekend’s snowfall shouldn’t raise concern just yet.

“I think our ecosystems as a rule are used to this kind of variability," Beier said. "They have some kind of buffer kind of built into the way that they often deal with seasonal changes and the way that they change with the seasons. This is becoming really our new normal.”

But while the ecosystem may adapt, other complications from excess snow could result – like farmers having to change their crop cycles with extreme temperatures.

“There's a lot of snow that has to be plowed into various places," Beier said. "The snow that gets plowed up often has road salt and other pollutants in it. When that snow does eventually melt, those pollutants are going to be moving into waterways.”

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.