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‘Lake Effect’ book explores its science, trends, living with it

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The ghostly, wavering radar images stretching across Lake Ontario will soon appear on our TV and computer screens, putting us on edge as the lake-effect snow season gears up.

But it wasn’t always like this, according to the author of a comprehensive book on lake-effect snow. Our ancestors didn’t seem to be bothered much by the storms, and it was more than a case of what they didn’t see coming didn’t trouble them.

“As the population moved into cities, snow was more of a problem,” said Mark Monmonier, a distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University. He is the author of the recently released “Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows,” published by Syracuse University Press.

Mr. Monmonier blended meteorological history with the history of scientific cartography for his book, which also explores the social effects of extreme weather such as lake-effect snow.

“In the late 19th century, the rural areas in particular had a continual coating of snow,” Mr. Monmonier said. “This helps you move around when you have a horse and sleigh. Actually, you could get around a whole lot better than if you had a horse and a wagon and the roads weren’t very good.”

Also in the 19th century, not many people bothered to study the phenomena known as lake-effect snow, which Mr. Monmonier said is a term that was coined in the 1970s with the advent of satellite cloud photographs.

“This book was interesting because what I decided to do was to build upon my finding that it was sort of a really slow, belated discovery of lake-effect snow, which is apparent not only in maps, but in meteorological literature,” he said.

Parts of the book can read like a scientific journal with terms like “orographic lifting,” “teleconnection” and “minimum fetch.” But the book conveniently is divided into seven chapters: recipe, discovery, prediction, impacts, records, change and place.

Mr. Monmonier’s work as a cartographer piqued his interest in authoring a book on lake-effect weather.

“I thought it’d be interesting to find the first maps that showed lake-effect snow and look at the role the maps played in studying it and trying to understand it,” the DeWitt resident said.

Mr. Monmonier said it wasn’t until the last two decades of the 1800s that measuring snowfall became the norm for weather observers.

“When people began making precipitation measurements, they just treated snow along with other forms of precipitation,” Mr. Monmonier said. “They would basically collect snow and melt it.”

These days, “Lake Effect” notes, snow is eagerly measured, with communities often competing for bragging rights. Mr. Monmonier notes the controversial 1997 recording of 77 inches of snow that a weather observer in Montague, Lewis County, said fell in a 24-hour period, which was an inch more than the previous 24-hour record set in Colorado.

The Montague record was later wiped out by the National Weather Service. The frequency of measurement affects the degree to which snow is compacted by its weight. The NWS says that in order for a record to be official, you can make no more than four measurements in a 24-hour period. Six were made in Montague.

mapping, a prediction

The first “real maps” of snow Mr. Monmonier found were from an 1894 atlas. In 1914, Charles Franklin Brooks created a much more detailed map of snowwfall. It came with a “clear, concise” description of lake effect, which is caused when cold air moves across the open waters of the Great Lakes. As the air passes over those unfrozen, and relatively warm waters, warmth and moisture is transferred into the lowest portion of the atmosphere. The air becomes warmer and less dense than the overriding cold air, so it rises. The rising air ultimately leads to cloudiness and snow on the leeward sides of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Monmonier said he found that it’s the “repetition” of snow that is the main characteristic of lake effect rather than huge depths.

“The most common influence of lake effect is that you get lots of days with cloudy skies and you get maybe a little snow,” he said, just enough to warrant shoveling and plowing the streets.

“Generally speaking, where there have been some very heavy snowfalls, what you have is a combination between lake effect and so-called ‘synoptic’ snow, which is associated with large, rotating storms,” Mr. Monmonier said.

He said that many climatologists have found a relationship with global warming and an “upward trend” in snowfall, not including last winter’s sparse snowfall, which he called “a fluke.”

Mr. Mommonier said that based on some advance climate models he’s seen from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he thinks snowfall this winter will be closer to the average.

“They are basing this on general patterns of circulation and on presumably, most of the precipitation will be delivered by air streaming, in our case, westward across Lake Ontario,” he said. “We’re pretty much going to get what we normally get with lake effect snow.”

The details
WHAT: The book “Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds and Recurrent Snows’ by Mark Monmonier, distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University. (272 pages, 59 maps, nine graphs and 14 illustrations).
COST: $24.95, available through the publisher’s website at
Mr. Monmonier has scheduled the following events:
Nov. 12: 7 p.m. at the DeWitt Community Library, 3649, Erie Boulevard east, Syracuse
Nov. 15: 7 p.m. at the River’s End bookstore in Oswego, 19 W. Bridge St.
Nov. 16: 6:30 p.m. at RiverRead Books, 5 Court St., Binghamton
Nov. 19: 7 p.m. at Creekside Books & Coffee, 25 Fennell St., Skaneateles
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