U of U study nets new info about ‘lake effect’ snow

Posted at 10:33 PM, Feb 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-24 00:33:00-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- University of Utah researchers have taken an in-depth look at the snow-producing “lake effect,” and they discovered the phenomenon may require another essential ingredient: mountains.

Jim Steenburgh, U of U professor of atmospheric sciences, has been running computer simulations on the lake effect, and he said it’s not as simple as some might think.

“It`s not as simple as just cold air moving over the lake in some situations, and this helps us to kind of uncover one of the key pieces that can contribute to lake effect formation,” he said.

Steenburgh said the position of mountains impacts the lake effect.

“We've learned that the way the Wasatch mountains and the Oquirrh mountains on the west side of the Salt Lake valley affect flows from the northwest,” he said. “They actually can help funnel that flow over the south end of the Great Salt Lake and over the Salt Lake valley in a way that can help to initiate or intensify lake effect storms. That`s not something we knew about before we started this research.'

Steenburgh said the computer models allow for observations that would otherwise be impossible.

“What's neat about these computer models is that it allows us to basically play God,” he said. “We can say take a mountain range out and see what happens, and that`s one of the things we did in this particular study.”

The lake effect can have a big impact on commutes in the Salt Lake Valley.

“Lake effect is most common at night and in the early morning hours, so it`s a big concern for example for the morning rush hour, and obviously lake effect snow can build up pretty good and contribute to accidents,' Steenburgh said.

U of U researchers plan to continue studying the lake effect in Utah, as well as in other areas throughout the country.