Lake Effect Snow, also called snow squalls, results from cold, arctic air traveling over a relatively warm body of water. The cold, dry air picks up the lake moisture and deposits it, in the form of snow, over land. In Cleveland, the wind generally blows from the west across Lake Erie and dumps the Lake Effect snow in the city's eastern suburbs, from Shaker Heights all the way to Buffalo.
When Does Lake Effect Occur?
In Cleveland, Lake Effect snow occurs early in the season, before Lake Erie has a chance to freeze.
During most winters, Lake Erie, the most shallow of all of the Great Lakes freezes around mid-January. Once frozen, the cold air cannot pick up the moisture from the lake and Lake Effect ceases. Lake Effect snow often occurs again in the late winter and early spring when the lake begins to thaw.
What does it mean in Cleveland?
Lake Effect produces heavy snowfall, up to 6" in one hour. It's also relatively unpredictable and can be preceded by periods of sunshine. In the early fall, when ground temperatures are relatively high, you will occasionally have thundersnow -- snow accompanied by thunder and lightening. In Northeast Ohio, the "snowbelt" runs east of the city, from the "heights" suburbs all the way to the PA state line.
Other Areas with Lake Effect Snow
Lake Effect occurs over all of the Great Lakes, usually at the southeastern shores. Since Lake Effect is drawn to the higher elevations, the phenomena is also found as far inland as the Appalachian peaks of West Virginia.
In addition to the five Great Lakes, Lake Effect also occurs over the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Benefits of Lake Effect
In addition to creating picturesque winter vignettes in the small towns of eastern Ohio, such as Chardon, Burton, and Madison, Lake Effect snow has an insulating benefit to the Lake and Ashtabula County Ohio wine, produce, and nursery growers.
The blanket of snow helps to keep the ground temperature even and the early freeze helps to produce some of the best Icewine in the United States
Lake Effect in Popular Culture
The term "Lake Effect" has become so ingrained into the Northeast Ohio lexicon that it's even become a book title. Cleveland area mystery writer, Les Roberts, titled his fifth Milan Jacovich novel, Lake Effect.