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Weather Wednesday: What is the lake effect?

It seems like, out of nowhere, heavy snow slammed the Eastern Great Lakes. We looked into how exactly that happened and if it's possible in East Tennessee.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After extreme weather in the northern U.S., we took a look at how lake effects happen. They are generally discussed in reference to constantly snow-laden cities like Cleveland, Ohio or Buffalo. Luckily, that's just about the only type of place you'll see that kind of snow.

Let's start with a winter day. Your ingredients for lake effect snow are cold land and warmer water nearby. Water maintains heat better than land, so this is usually the case.

Then you get cold air that flies over the lake via the wind or light clouds. The cold air picks up the extra moisture and heat from the lake, creating bigger clouds that further develop snow inside. 

When these storms finally reach land, they dump everything that was just built up, and in this case, that was multiple feet of snow all along the lake coasts. Here are the top five snow totals from NWS Eastern Region:

  1. Orchard Park, NY - 80 inches
  2. Athol Springs, NY - 76 inches
  3. Hamburg, NY - 73.7 inches
  4. Natural Bridge, NY - 72.3 inches
  5. Watertown, NY - 61 inches

That highest total is 80 inches, or 6'8" of snow, which is taller than most people — even professional athletes. 

It's not likely to happen in East Tennessee.

In reality, the lake effect is possible anywhere that these conditions occur. However, the lakes here in Tennessee are not big enough to make as much impact as the Great Lakes. Also, it's just not usually that cold. 

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