Lake-effect Snow in the Great Lakes Region

Lake-effect Snowstorm over the Great Lakes, April, 2012.Lake-effect Snowstorm over the Great Lakes
Approximate extent of major lake-effect snowbelts in the Great Lakes RegionApproximate extent of major lake-effect snowbelts in the Great Lakes Region, Image source: Dept. of Geography at Hunter College, CUNY
Lake-effect snow over Lake Superior during a period of westerly wind.Lake-effect snow over Lake Superior

Cold winds in the winter typically prevail from the northwest in the Great Lakes region, producing dramatic lake-effect snowfall on the southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes. This lake-effect produces a striking difference between the snowfall experienced by communities downwind of the lakes and those or lying on the northern and western shores of the Great Lakes.

The Upper Peninsula Snowbelt

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan features one of the largest and most distinct snowbelts in the United States. Due to their large area and depth, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron freeze less completely. With open lake water throughout the winter months, lake-effect snow can fall continually across the Upper Peninsula and Canadian snowbelts. From the Porcupine Mountains and the Keweenaw Peninsula to Whitefish Point, snowfall is dramatically enhanced by lake effects. In some areas, annual snowfall totals commonly exceed 250 inches (635 cm) per year. The Keweenaw Peninsula, which averages more snowfall than any location in the United States east of the Mississippi River, owes much of its winter snowfall to lake effects. For comparison, Duluth, Minnesota, which lies outside the lake effect zone at the southwestern tip of Lake Superior, receives 78 inches (198 cm) per season. 

Lake Michigan Snowbelt

Western Michigan, Northwestern Lower Michigan, and Northern Indiana can experience heavy lake-effect snow. As winds pass over Lake Michigan and generate snow, areas near Traverse City, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, South Bend, and Elkhart can experience significant, often disruptive, lake-effect snowstorms. These snowfall events can reach far across Michigan and Indiana, but typically diminish significantly in severity before reaching areas such as Lansing or Fort Wayne. Under the right, relatively uncommon conditions of northerly winds, a single band of lake-effect snow may form down the length of Lake Michigan, producing intense, but localized, snowfall in Northwestern Indiana.

A powerful lake-effect snowstorm envelopes Buffalo, New YorkA lake-effect snowstorm approaching Buffalo, NY

Lake Ontario and Lake Erie Snowbelts

The region east and southeast of Lake Ontario frequently sees daily snowfall totals that are higher than anywhere in the United States. Syracuse, New York, receives significant lake-effect snow from Lake Ontario, averaging 116 inches (294 cm) of snow per year. Lake Erie produces a lake effect zone stretching from the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio to Buffalo, New York. Because of its relatively shallow depths, Lake Erie has the distinction of being the only Great Lake capable of completely freezing over. As it freezes throughout the winter and the fuel supply of moisture from the lake surface is cut off, lake-effect snow events cease.

Lake Huron Snowbelt

Much of Southern Ontario west of Lake Huron can experience intense lake-effect snowfall and notorious whiteout conditions. The greatest accumulations typically occur on the Bruce Peninsula, which divids the main body of Lake Huron to the west from the Georgian Bay to the east. Bounded by the lake on all sides except to the south, the Bruce Peninsula experiences lake-effect precipitation during most winter weather events, except when the wind is directly from the south or when Lake Huron is significantly frozen over.

Inland and Upwind Areas

Lake-effect snow is far less common in areas that are far enough inland or upwind from prevailing northwesterly winds over the lakes. Therefore, regions that see less lake-effect snow are typically those on the western and northern shores of the lakes, including Southeastern Michigan, Northwestern Ohio, Southeastern Wisconsin and Northeastern Illinois. However, lake-effect snow is possible when winds are out of the east or northeast. More frequently, the north side of a low-pressure system gathers more moisture as it travels westward over the lake, creating a phenomenon called lake-enhanced precipitation.

Climate Change and Snowfall

Overall, snowfall has increased in northern lake-effect zones in the Great Lakes basin even as snowfall totals in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio have declined with rising temperatures. Warmer Great Lakes surface water temperatures and declining Great Lakes ice cover have likely driven the observed increases in lake-effect snow. As global temperatures continue to rise and further warm the Great Lakes, areas in lake-effect zones will continue to see increasing lake-effect snowfall. Areas in more southern lake-effect zones may see lake-effect snow replaced by lake-effect rain, as winter temperatures will warm and be less suitable for snow.