Northern New York sees its fair share of winter weather. Cold Canadian lows spin across the borderlands from November till April, dragging trains of snow in their wake. But it’s what happens after the lows move on that’s really interesting. Instead of clearing skies, we’re often blessed with lingering clouds and even heavier snows. Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers rejoice — so long as the groomers can pack and track their trails, that is — but motorists and cyclists are less enthusiastic. The morning commute now becomes a white-knuckle slog, and (for the cyclists, at any rate) every trip means dicing with death among the legions of drivers who think their phone conversations are more important than a cyclist’s life.
Happily, the cyclist almost always wins the toss, but it’s still not a game for the faint of heart. Which is why bicycles are a rare sight on northern New York roads in winter.
Who’s the villain in this set-piece confrontation? Not the chatterbox motorist, surely. Incompetent or downright hostile drivers can be found on every road in all seasons. No, the winter cyclist’s nemesis is something bigger. Something called the “lake effect.” Look at any map of North America. There’s a lot of water in the Great Lakes, and much of that water lies to the west of central and northern New York. Until the big lakes freeze — and this is happening less and less often these days — the chill westerlies following hard on the heels of Canadian lows pick up huge amounts of water vapor from Lakes Erie and Ontario. And when this water vapor subsequently freezes, heavy snowfalls are the all but inevitable result. These have been christened lake-effect storms.
Forecasters who are also skiers like to speak of the “lake-effect gun,” and it’s a good tag. When the gun is firing, the drifts pile up fast and deep. Some parts of the Tug Hill plateau routinely see snowfalls of several feet from a single storm, and the city of Syracuse — it lies just to the east of Lakes Erie and Ontairo — enjoys a reputation as the snowiest metropolis in the States.
You can easily spot lake-effect snow bands on the radar maps that are the centerpieces of most Internet weather sites. In the screenshot below, I’ve drawn yellow boxes around two examples:
The northern gun in this picture gets its ammunition from Lake Ontario; the southern gun, from Lake Erie. The city of Buffalo, which lies on the Niagara River that connects the two lakes, is therefore exposed to flanking fire from both quarters, even if it unaccountably defers to Syracuse in the overall snowfall stakes.
All well and good, you say. But what does a lake-effect storm look like from a less elevated perspective? Fair question. Living as I do in the northern Adirondack foothills, well to the east of the Tug Hill, I often dodge the bullet when the lake-effect gun is firing. Not always, though. The following scenario is more or less typical. I’m pedaling south, clawing my way out of the St. Lawrence lowlands, my panniers laden with groceries. I have clear skies overhead. The air is cold, but the sun is shining down, and the effort of climbing keeps me warm. Then, usually just as I mount the first step in the ascending staircase, the sun deserts me, hiding his face behind a thickening veil of cloud. The west wind — a gentle west-sou’west breeze when I started on my homeward journey — now backs another point to the south and flexes its muscles, blowing a steady Force 4, with occasional gusts to Force 7. A routine trip into town has suddenly become an adventure. Having no choice in the matter, however, I pedal on, hoping to beat the storm.
But luck is not on my side. Soon the sun is little more than a sickly white blob in an otherwise gray sky, and snow is blowing across the road. I rub my finger over my glasses to clear them, and this is what I see:
Now the fun begins in earnest. My drivetrain has been accumulating rime for half an hour, and I’m down to three or four usable gears. The long gradient (the second step in my climb) steepens, and from time to time I have to stand on the pedals to make any progress. Rime is also accumulating under my fenders and on my brakes, but at least the constant clicking from my studded tires is muted by the deepening drifts.
And make no mistake, the snow is getting heavier by the minute. Visibility is down to a few score yards at best:
But then fortune smiles. The Adirondacks lie like giant boulders within the river of air, attenuating the bands of lake-effect snow and forcing them to writhe wildly about in their passage over the hills. And that’s what’s happened here. I’ve ridden straight through the storm. Now, as I prepare for my final climb — a mercifully short 18 percent grade — I can already see breaks in the cloud above me. They’re a welcome sight, indeed:
Later, having emptied my panniers, put away the groceries, and cleaned the worst of the gunge from my bike’s powertrain — an hour-long chore that’s unaccountably overlooked by those cheery souls who tout the carefree ease of bicycle commuting — I take a minute to walk down to The River, where I’m just in time to witness the dying gasps of the storm, its moisture all but spent and its sustaining gusts reduced to gentle zephyrs.
It’s a peaceful scene. But the guns of winter are seldom silent for long, and tomorrow is another day.
This article revisits a topic originally addressed on December 30, 2009.
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