UW Researchers to Participate in Study of Lake Ontarios Heavy Snowfall

October 24, 2013
Snowy landscape
A map shows lake-effect snow over Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. (NASA Photo)

The University of Wyoming’s Department of Atmospheric Science will be part of a study to better understand why so much lake-effect snow falls on the shores of Lake Ontario in northern New York state each winter.

Bart Geerts, a UW professor of atmospheric science, is one of the lead investigators in the Ontario Lake-Effect Systems (OWLeS) project. OWLeS is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is a collaborative effort among nine universities and one nonprofit organization. In addition to UW, participating scientists and students will be represented from the University of Illinois, University of Utah, State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego, SUNY Albany, Hobart College, William Smith College, Millersville University, Penn State University, the University of Alabama and the Center for Severe Weather Research.

The Wyoming King Air, UW’s research aircraft, and the Doppler on Wheels (DOW) Mobile Radars, owned by the Center for Severe Weather Research, will be used to help study the dynamics of lake-effect snowstorms in detail during the OWLeS project, which will be conducted in December and January 2014. The King Air includes radar and LIDAR instruments. LIDAR, an acronym for light detection and ranging, is an optic remote sensing technology that can detect and measure cloud droplets in the atmosphere. Snow is detected by radar.

“There are some similarities of snowfall over an open lake, such as Lake Ontario, and snowfall over the mountains of Wyoming,” Geerts says. “In both cases, snowfall is often convective and snowfall tends to be heavy locally.”

While lake-effect snow is common over several of the Great Lakes and their bordering states, the region of New York state adjacent to Lake Ontario receives average annual snowfall amounts of more than 100 inches. Certain locations, such as the Tug Hill Plateau, receive upward of 250 inches of snow a year. The Tug Hill region is located just east of Lake Ontario.

Scientists will investigate a number of key factors, including how the local terrain influences the strength and longevity of these systems; how and when lightning occurs; determining what environmental factors lead to the greatest amount of snowfall; and what processes and interactions are essential to capture in the numerical models to accurately forecast snow events.

“How do lake-effect snow bands from upstream (Lake Huron) affect snow bands over Lake Ontario? Why do some of the snow bands seem persistent far over the land when they are far from the lake?” Geerts says. “Why is it that some bands produce heavy snowfall, even lightning?”

The projects's origins trace back five years, when Geerts discussed the research with scientists at SUNY Oswego who were aware of UW King Air’s capabilities.

“The King Air is a national facility. It can be requested by anyone,” Geerts says of the aircraft that receives base support of $1.6 million annually from NSF. “The research aircraft can be viewed as a small business with activities anywhere in the U.S. and internationally. We can operate anywhere NSF supports the research.”

As a result, Geerts submitted a proposal to NSF in 2009. However, NSF wanted to first conduct the research as a small pilot project without the use of King Air, Geerts says. That pilot project occurred during 2010-11. Based on observations made from the pilot project, NSF then encouraged UW to submit a series of proposals, including one focused on using the King Air for the OWLeS project.

Geerts plans to be on site for most or all of the 43 days of the research project. He co-chairs the project with David Kristovich, an adjunct associate professor and senior scientist in University of Illinois’ Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Approximately 10 faculty members from UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science will participate in the project, Geerts says.

Geerts expects the research will provide insights into how to better monitor and predict snowstorms, not just over the Great Lakes, but also in Wyoming and elsewhere.

For more information about the OWLeS project, go to http://www.eol.ucar.edu/projects/owles/.

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