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The Science Behind A Snowy NFL Sunday

This past NFL Sunday was going according to plan until play began in Buffalo, New York as the Bills and Colts faced off. Then, all insanity broke loose. It snowed and snowed, all the while both teams struggled to get their offense off the ground. It was (literally) tough to watch as New Era Field became a real life snow globe with flying flakes obscuring play. Why did it snow so hard and for so long? Okay, let’s science!

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Every year a mechanism that meteorologists call “The Lake Effect Snow Machine” turns on, bringing piles of frozen flakes to portions of the Midwest and Northeast. The phrase itself refers to a period of time when the weather pattern is conducive for the Great Lakes to create their own snow. If this regime persists over several days, places like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Cleveland can get feet upon feet of the white stuff. Let’s dig deeper and learn why this phenomenon happens.

It’s common for lake effect events to occur immediately after large cold fronts sweep across the Midwest rushing in cold air from the north. This establishes a northwest flow, priming locations south and east of the Great Lakes for solid snow accumulation.

The wind direction isn’t always from the northwest and can be from any direction, which means any area near a large lake can get lake effect snow. The common regime, however, is wind blowing from somewhere between north and west. Although, there is an atmospheric piece that has to be there and that’s cold air.

As cold air moves over a Great Lake, the air and water interact. The water is warmer than the air above and begins to add heat and moisture to it. Pockets of this air become warmer than the ambient atmosphere and thus more buoyant. This buoyant air begins to rise, similar to how a hot air balloon takes flight. As the air continues to rise, it actually begins to cool. I know, confusing, a lot of heating and cooling. But because this air now has more moisture than it did before, the cooling slows the speed of the water vapor molecules and helps glom them together, a process called condensation, forming clouds and snowflakes.

Just as the warming air rose, the cooling air must sink. Rising and sinking can’t happen simultaneously in the same place, so as the warm air rises in the center, the cool air sinks to the sides. This process gives lake effect snow their signature discrete band look. Air rises within the bands and sinks in-between the bands.

A few things inhibit lake effect snow, one of which is a cold or frozen lake. If it’s been a seasonable or cold winter, parts of the Great Lakes will freeze over. Once this happens, the lake effect snow machine is off until they begin to thaw closer to springtime.

In a nutshell, that’s how lake effect snow happens. Now let’s look at a few examples to get an idea of just how powerful this weather phenomenon can be.

In December of 1966, 12 inches of snow fell in just one hour across Copenhagen, New York. In January of 1997, a whopping 40 inches of snow fell in twelve hours across Montague, New York. Simply insane. The craziest events happen when snow bands set up in one location for days on end. For example, in the ten day period from February 3rd to the 12th of 2007, a ridiculous 141 inches of the fluffy stuff fell in Redfield, New York. For most of us (me included), this amount of snow is unimaginable but I love snow, so this sounds like paradise.

Okay, let’s bring this back into context of the game on Sunday. Atmospheric and lake conditions were prime for lake effect snow and low and behold, the snow began to pile up. The official snowfall report for the Buffalo Airport was a mere 2.6 inches. But just twelve miles south, at New Era Field, where several dozen large men were prancing among the flakes, they received over 15 inches of the white death (I’m from Marylander, that’s what everyone calls it).

For the majority of the game, snow fell at one to two inches per hour, making it nearly impossible to see who had the ball and where they were going. On the whole, it was a sloppy yet oddly entertaining game. All brought to us by the lake effect snow machine.

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