Earth System Science Center and Department of Atmospheric Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville

UAH team joins chilly study of NY snow off Lake Ontario

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Dec. 4, 2013) — A team of scientists and students from the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Severe Weather Institute, Radar and Lightning Laboratory (SWIRLL) are in upstate New York today for the kickoff of a two-month study of the lake-effect snow that typically blankets that area most winters.

With a suite of weather instruments that includes two upward-looking mobile Doppler radars, the UAH team is set up near Oswego, N.Y., on the southeastern bank of Lake Ontario. UAH is one of several universities and other organizations participating in the Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems (OWLeS) experiment organized by scientists at the State University of New York at Oswego.

The instruments from UAH will form the core of a “super site” of research instruments from several institutions, said Dr. Kevin Knupp, the SWIRLL director.

UAH’s portion of the study — nicknamed ROVERR (Reciprocal Ontario Vertical Experimental Radar Research) — will look upward into snow storm systems to learn more about the structure of those snow-laden bands as they blow across the lake and into New York state.

It is often quite a bit of snow. During the past 64 years, the weather station in Oswego reported an average annual snowfall of 130 inches — almost eleven feet. The lowest snow total was a mere 45.3″ in 1953. Nearby locations, such as the Tug Hill plateau (where the UAH team may occasionally be set up), are frequently blanketed with more than 21 feet of snow in a year.

“We will be prepared for adverse winter conditions, although we don’t know what  all of challenges those conditions might present be,” said Knupp. “That’s what we do best, is react on the fly to changing conditions.”

Knupp will be joined in Oswego by eight six students working in shifts. The UAH team will have three people on site throughout the program, which runs Dec. 5 – 21 and Jan. 4-29.

Funded through the National Science Foundation, OWLeS will look into sometimes powerful storms that pick up water vapor steaming up from Lake Ontario and deposit it as snow or ice on areas downwind of the lake. The program’s scientific goals include trying to better understand the dynamics inside these storms, in part to improve snowfall predictions, and studying how some of these storms become electrified enough to produce lightning.

The project is divided into two sections, based largely on wind direction. When the wind is mostly out of the west, it can travel across a long stretch of the lake. This can create a so-called long-fetch storm, which can deposit heavy snowfall when it comes ashore. If the wind is more northerly, it goes across less open water or a short fetch.

ROVERR will look at both long fetch and short fetch storms.

In addition to the Doppler radars, the UAH instruments include two LIDARs, laser-based instruments that also look upward to study the structure of storms as they pass overhead. Neither One is a new scanning Doppler LIDAR instrument that has been not been used in a frozen environment such as will be found around Oswego, Knupp said.

“During the short fetch storms we could be set up within 100 or 200 feet of the shore,” he said. “The strong winds will blow waves and pick up spray, which will be super cooled so it freezes instantly when it hits any surface. The scanning LIDAR is an optical instrument that requires a flat mirror to pick up the laser signal.

“That mirror might no longer be a flat surface if water starts freezing on it. It might get to be fairly labor intensive to keep that system clear of snow and ice.”

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