PENN YAN — Meteorology scientists and students from across the country converged at the Penn Yan Airport for a National Science Foundation open house to begin a period of study along the shores of Lake Ontario during December and January. The goal is to better understand the atmospheric conditions and geographic factors responsible for extreme snow accumulations across the region each winter.
The OWLeS (Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems) project will use a network of specialized weather instruments, including three Doppler on Wheels (DOW) mobile radar trucks, several weather balloon sounding systems, a vertical radar wind profiler, and a specially equipped Raytheon King Air 200T twin turbo-prop research airplane from the University of Wyoming, flying out of Penn Yan, to study the interior workings of lake-effect snow storms in unprecedented detail.
Lake-effect systems form through surface-air interactions as a cold air mass moves over relatively warm, ice-free, large bodies of water. The OWLeS project focuses on Lake Ontario because of its size and orientation, the frequency of lake-effect events (especially intense single bands), the impact of Ontario lake-effect hazards on public safety and commerce, and the proximity of several universities with atmospheric science programs.
Although lake-effect snow storms occur over all of the Great Lakes, the region of New York adjacent to Lake Ontario experiences some of the most intense snowfall events, with average annual amounts of over 100 inches. Certain locations, such as the Tug Hill Plateau, can receive upward of 250 inches per year.
Karl Flemming of Seneca Flight Operations, who was instrumental in organizing the facilities at the Penn Yan Airport for the NSF, says Penn Yan was selected to be the base for the University of Wyoming aircraft because it is relatively protected from most lake effect events from both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, while still close to the study target area. The Penn Yan Airport provided the hangar, terminal and offices for the open house and will continue to provide support for the weather plane’s flights. The Penn Yan Flying Club also provided equipment for the open house.
A portable Doppler radar unit has been installed at the airport. Moored weather balloons and other instruments will be installed at Finger Lakes Community College in Hopewell and other sites around the Finger Lakes.
Lake-effect snow events are not limited to the shores of Lake Ontario. The Finger Lakes can also generate lake-enhanced snowfall, and the complex interactions between the local environment and the far-reaching influence of Lake Ontario can significantly impact the amount and location of snow bands.
As the snow begins to fall, scientists and students will head out to collect data to better understand lake-effect snow processes, to lead to increased predictability of — and preparedness for — these events.
Some of the key questions scientists will investigate include what factors have the greatest influence on the amount of snowfall and location of snow bands over and near Lake Ontario; how the other Great Lakes affect the amount of snow falling near Ontario; how the local terrain influences the strength and longevity of lake effect snowstorms; and how best to accurately forecast snowfall; among others.
OWLeS is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is a collaborative effort among nine universities — including, regionally, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, SUNY Oswego and SUNY Albany — and one non-profit organization, the Center for Severe Weather Research. The field phase of the study takes place Dec. 5-21 and Jan. 4-29, with operations centered at the campus of SUNY Oswego. Hobart and William Smith’s Neil Laird and Nicholas Metz are among the participating investigators leading 109 students from their universities and colleges.