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Utah group charts lake-effect snowfall in Tug Hill for Lake Ontario study


Tucked between Lake Ontario and the Adirondacks, the Tug Hill Plateau is among the best spots in the world for drawing lake-effect snow, according to Dr. James Steenburgh, University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences.

Mr. Steenburg, who has conducted lake-effect snow research in Oswego County with students since early December, highlighted the qualities that make Lake Ontario a powerhouse for lake-effect snowfall Monday during a presentation at the state Tug Hill Commission’s board meeting in West Monroe. The group of about 50 spectators learned that Mr. Steenburg’s research conducted during the massive lake-effect snowstorm last week likely will have tremendous value for scientists and meteorologists who develop weather technology used to track snowstorms.

The Tug Hill research, which will continue through January, is part of the Ontario Winter Lake-Effect Systems project sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The collaborative effort, which aims to conduct unprecedented research on lake-effect storms, includes eight academic institutions and the Center for Severe Weather Research.

Mr. Steenburg, who conducts lake-effect snow research on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, was impressed by early findings from his Lake Ontario research this winter. His team has conducted research at two weather stations in Oswego County: one is about a mile east of Lake Ontario at a private residence in the town of Sandy Creek (400 feet above sea level), and the other is off County Route 17 in the town of Redfield (1,275 feet above sea level).

The peak elevation of the Tug Hill region is about 2,100 feet above sea level at Gomer Hill mountain summit in Lewis County. Lake Ontario is about 250 feet above sea level.

During a 24-hour period during the lake-effect snowstorm Jan. 7 and 8, a total of 41 inches was measured by Mr. Steenburg’s team. That mark tops the 27 inches measured over 24 hours on Jan. 26, 1972, in the town of Montague.

Placed at ground level, meteorological snowboards are used by the research team to measure the snow depth; a camera situated by the board automatically takes photographs every five minutes to document the snowfall height. Because of its higher elevation, the Redfield location has accumulated about twice the snowfall of the Sandy Creek spot, Mr. Steenburg said.

“As storms go up the Tug Hill, the lake-effect snow tends to pick up,” he said. “The mountain is high, but not high enough to blow the peak of storms.”

Lake Ontario is about five times larger than the Great Salt Lake, Mr. Steenburg said. Its elongated shape — about 193 statute miles long — gives snowstorms more time to develop as cold air moves across the warmer body of water. That creates an updraft that picks up water vapor, freezing it into snow that eventually is deposited on shores. Land breezes that push air from the lake’s perimeter intensify that effect.

Those “breezes help organize lake-effect breezes into narrower bands of snow. It’s the most intense variety of lake effect,” he said. “Storm intensity is where Lake Ontario (outcompetes) everyone. You are in the epicenter of some of the most intense snowstorms in the world here.”

Mr. Steenburg’s research team also is equipped with four trucks mounted with Doppler weather radar dishes, which measure the scope and speed of snowstorms using micro-rain radar technology.

“We do what’s called a ‘lawn mower effect,’ sending a signal of energy back and forth across the range of the storm,” Mr. Steenburg said. “We can move it really close to the storm and scan the radar dish any way we want. Ultrasonic snow-depth sensors bounce off the snow, and as it goes back to the sensor we can see how high the snow is in the air.”

One of the most challenging parts of the research assignment, he said, was determining where to set up weather stations. National Weather Service data over the past 13 years were examined, and input was sought from people in the region to decide the locations, which are situated in areas with dense trees as wind shelter.

“A small clearing in the trees, about 150 feet across, is ideal,” Mr. Steenburg said. It can’t be too narrow, though, because we don’t want interception from trees.”

Preliminary results of the Ontario Winter Lake-Effect Systems project are available online at

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