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Extreme lake-effect snow is pounding western New York by possibly 5 feet

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An extreme lake-effect blizzard ravages the eastern shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, littering western New York with fertile accumulations and bringing commerce to a standstill. More than 30 inches of snow has already fallen in some areas just south of Buffalo, with another half to three feet on the way for some, with a few locations expected to approach or exceed 60 inches of snow.

A pair of more-effect bands formed Thursday night and quickly intensified, with snow falling at 3 inches per hour, as well as thunder, lightning, high winds and near-blizzards. In Hamburg, NY, 12 miles south of Buffalo, as much as 5 inches fell in an hour on Friday. The Weather Service reported that 34 in had fallen in Hamburg until 9 a.m. However, the snow belts are only about 20 miles thick and locations just north or south will see minimally disruptive light snowfall.

Here’s what you need to know about the lake-effect snow toppling Buffalo

Within the bands, “travel will be very difficult to impossible,” the National Weather Service in Buffalo warned. It previously described the ongoing storm as “crippling” and “crippling” in online technical forecast discussions.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) declared a state of emergency for the region as of Thursday morning, and Buffalo schools announced they would be closed on Fridays. The Buffalo Bills’ home game against the Cleveland Browns, scheduled for Sunday, has been moved to Detroit.

Lake-effect snow warnings remain in effect downwind of the lakes, with winter storm watches and winter weather advisories for outlying counties. That’s where there’s less confidence in how much snow the tires, which will wobble a bit to the north and south due to subtle shifts in wind direction, will fall.

As of Friday morning, many areas just south of Buffalo had already seen at least 9 inches of snow, including Hamburg and West Seneca. Snowfall of 25 inches was reported northwest of Eden, NY, between Interstate 90 and the lakeshore.

Thursday night into Friday morning saw numerous reports of thunderstorm snow as the intense snow bands, fueled by extreme differences between the relatively warm Lake Erie and the frigid air above, unleashed thunder and lightning like a summer storm.

Across the Buffalo subway, snowfall totals have been on a steep slope so far. About 19.5 inches was piled up near the railroad yard in south Buffalo, with 5.3 inches in Kenmore, about 5½ miles to the northwest. Conditions vary considerably in multi-effect bands, given their localized nature, which also leads to sharp cutoffs and sudden jackpots in totals.

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Off the coast of Lake Ontario, the Tug Hill Plateau is ravaged by heavy snow. Four feet of rain fell in Williamstown, about 40 miles northeast of Syracuse along Highway 13. Oswego, where thunder was reported, is 7.3 inches, and Watertown, northeast of the lake along Interstate 81, is just under 5 inches .

The snowbands are expected to remain focused on the east-northeast shores of the lakes through Friday night, but they could drift north on Saturday afternoon in response to a more southerly component of the wind. At Lake Erie, that can mean a break for places like Blasdell, West Seneca, Lackawanna, and the greater Buffalo area, and the same goes for Watertown near Lake Ontario.

Snowbands will shift south again on Sunday as winds turn westerly, passing their original positions before targeting areas even further south that have evaded most of the initial snowfall. That could mean 9 to 12 inches for Oswego County, where a winter storm watch is in effect. A pulse of snow will also target New York State’s Western Southern Tier near and especially north of the Allegheny River.

The snowfall is driven by a persistent upper-air weather pattern dominated by an extended dip in the jet stream, or trough, over the eastern United States. At high altitudes, a pocket of cold air, low pressure and spin has lodged in that southward jet drift, and it will ebb and flow over the Great Lakes for the next few days. A more concentrated lobe of frigid air aloft will swing directly over Lakes Erie and Ontario on Saturday.

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Those features have led a perfectly oriented supply of cold west-southwesterly winds down the length of the lakes; in the case of Lake Erie, that’s a distance of 240 miles. Air temperatures in the teens and 20s blow over water closer to 50 degrees. The stark contrast allows pockets of air heated by the lake below to rise rapidly in the icy atmosphere.

As a result, snow clouds some 20,000 feet high are established in a conveyor-belt-like conga line that runs along the axis of the lake. Within that, airborne ice crystals contribute to the development of thunderstorm snow. Low-level convergence, or air gathering near the surface, meanwhile, could even support a distant waterspout over the lake.

It’s not the first time that abundant lake-effect snow has buried Buffalo and surrounding areas. Between November 14 and 21, 2014, a pair of back-to-back lake-effect blizzards threw up to 88 inches of snow just south of town. Twenty-six people died during the storm, mostly from heart attacks resulting from shoveling afterwards.

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