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What’s the deal with lake effect?


“Some days last longer than others/But this day by the lake went too fast”

— Rilo Kiley, “With Arms Outstretched”

Lake effect, lake effect, lake effect. It seems like that’s all we ever hear anymore.

The phrase gets tossed around so much that it’s lost all meaning, which makes the kind of extreme weather we’re experiencing sound like such a normal phenomenon, like, “Oh, it’s just lake effect.”

But I’m here to tell you, this kind of weather ain’t normal.

Seriously, what’s the deal with lake effect? What is it? And why does it have such a lame name?

I think we need to come up with a new moniker for it, something that’s a bit more descriptive.

How about: “I-was-driving-down-the-road-and-then-all-of-a-sudden-I-couldn’t-see-anything-because-everything-outside-my-car-windows-has-turned-white-and-the-whiteness-is-even-inside-my-car-and-now-I-think-the-whiteness-is-swallowing-my eyeballs-whole snow”?

That seems more accurate.

I mean, the whole “lake effect” name kind of implies that there could be some good lake effects or maybe, for that matter, worse lake effects. Like, lake effect sunshine or lake effect plague of locusts.

How about “sudden snow” or “fender-bender-weather”?

Or maybe just, “Hello, I’m Mother Nature and I hate you all.”

I like that last one.

The science behind lake effect snow, as told by the National Weather Service, is kind of complicated but, basically, cold air moves over warm lake waters, gets all hot and bothered, evaporates, cools, and forms extremely incontinent snow clouds.

Those clouds form into bands and get pushed along by the wind, depositing snow at a rate of up to 5 inches an hour, sometimes with the added drama of lighting and thunder.

The kind of meteorologists who work for organizations like the National Weather Service seem to have decidedly more subdued personalities than their network television counterparts. So why should we take their word for it?

The closest they’ve gotten to being descriptive is when they named a recent deadly storm “Hercules.”

Before that we got “Andrew,” “Irene,” “Katrina,” and “Sandy” — all very nice names but perhaps not appropriate for the kinds of weather events that destroy entire cities.

I like the practice of using characters from Greek mythology: Hurricane Medusa, tropical storm Thanatos, etc. That seems more like it.

The effectiveness of the term “lake effect” has been diminished even further recently as people have begun trying to re-appropriate it.

There’s a 2012 made-for-TV-movie called “Lake Effects” where “All paths converge at the Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival, on course for a heart-warming and hilarious conclusion,” according to its Internet Movie Database summary.

Not exactly what we’re experiencing right now, is it?

I wouldn’t describe the weather of the last few weeks as either heart-warming or hilarious.

And there’s a Chicago-based craft brewing company called Lake Effect Brewing.

“We called ourselves Lake Effect because many of our ingredients come from around the lakes. Wisconsin Malt, Michigan Hops and Lake Michigan Water. We also use fruits (grapes, cherries, apples) that can be grown here because of the lake moderating climate in Michigan and Wisconsin which is a ‘lake effect.’ Chicagoans and citizens of the Great Lakes are very much in tune with lake effect snows and/or being the sunny side of the lake while the other side gets slammed — there seems to be a unique connection to the name that everyone identifies with,” Clint Bautz, one of the founders of Lake Effect Brewing, told me in an email.

Since these guys are making beer, and beer is good, I can get behind this logic, I suppose.

But at the same time, I still submit that the phenomenon that dumps tons of snow on the north country, closes roads and causes accidents, needs some revamped terminology.

The way I see it, we have two options:

1. The apocalyptic, i.e. “thundersnow,” “the white reckoning” or “death by snowflake”

2. Or, the philosophic

For that second one, I have a concept in mind.

There’s a song that I used to listen to a lot a few years ago. It’s called “With Arms Outstretched” by the group Rilo Kiley.

The song describes, in a refreshing way, the fleeting nature of time via the evanescence of a summer’s day at the lake.

“Some days last longer than others/But this day by the lake went too fast,” the singer Jenny Lewis croons.

Those kind of summer days never seem to last long enough while the winter goes on and on.

If you can figure out a way to turn that feeling into a short meteorological phrase, I’m accepting suggestions.

Until then, the lake giveth and the lake taketh away.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at

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