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A surprising trigger of western New York ‘thundersnow’: Wind turbines

Sparks of groundbreaking science are emerging from the historic lake-effect snowstorm that pummeled Buffalo and western New York.

A mobile Doppler on Wheels unit is surrounded by intense snow from a lake-effect storm over the weekend. (University of Illinois/Doppler on Wheels)

Sparks of groundbreaking science are emerging from the historic lake-effect snowstorm that pummeled western New York over the weekend. A research project based at State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) has gathered unprecedented data on how wind turbines can spawn lightning within a snowstorm, often referred to as “thundersnow.”

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Project LEE (Lake-Effect Electrification) runs through March 2023. The study has already snagged a major win from the intense multiday episode of lake-effect snow that hammered the east ends of Lakes Ontario and Erie, including the Buffalo area.

Buffalo residents observed "thundersnow" over their city on Nov. 17, as lightning and thunder boomed alongside historic snowfall. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

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On Friday night, dozens of lightning flashes were detected in snow bands across the Tug Hill Plateau. Maple Ridge Wind Farm — New York’s largest, with 195 turbines — sits atop the plateau about 50 miles northeast of the Oswego campus. It’s a spot well suited for generating wind energy but also notorious for some of the heaviest lake-effect snow on Earth.

SUNY Oswego meteorology professor Scott Steiger was up all night watching data roll in. A lightning mapping array (LMA), which consists of 16 sensors deployed across the plateau, is designed to piece together a three-dimensional portrait of each lightning flash.

“It was the most lightning I’ve ever seen in lake-effect snow,” Steiger said Sunday, adding that he was “tired” but “elated.”

According to Steiger, this field project marks the first time lightning flashes within snow bands are being observed in such thorough detail. Steiger is co-directing Project LEE with another SUNY Oswego faculty member, Yonggang Wang.

A Doppler on Wheels (DOW) mobile radar unit from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is on hand for the next few weeks of the project. The DOW data will help researchers connect the lightning formation to precipitation processes occurring within each snow band.

As the local snow bands — oriented roughly from west to east, parallel with Lake Ontario — oscillate to the north and south over the course of a multiday event, the DOW is working to keep up with them.

On Friday night, the DOW captured intense snow bands near Watertown, north of Oswego and the wind farm. The radar redeployed closer to Oswego itself Sunday.

“Today’s storm was very electrified,” said Doppler on Wheels founder Josh Wurman in an email Sunday. “The project is going exceptionally well so far.”

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Project LEE is also a real-world learning experience for more than 20 SUNY Oswego students. They’re doing some of the toughest work, from deploying and maintaining equipment to launching balloon-borne lightning sensors.

A native of Upstate New York, Steiger has long been fascinated by the infamous snow bands that develop just downwind from the Great Lakes. Steiger was also part of a previous study, the Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems (OWLeS) project, that gathered and analyzed radar and aircraft data on snow bands in winter 2013-14.

It was OWLeS data that inspired Project LEE. Most of the lightning observed in OWLeS occurred inland rather than near and off the lakeshore, surprising the study team.

SUNY Oswego professor Robert Ballentine, now retired, noticed that the wind farm seemed to coincide with the location of the peak inland lightning.

The next step, now being addressed in Project LEE, is to map out more precisely how lighting is triggered within snow bands.

Lightning damage is an increasing concern for wind power providers. Like any tall structure, a wind turbine can serve as a strike point for a downward-propagating lightning flash. However, as turbines grow taller, they appear more likely to trigger upward-propagating flashes that extend from the turbine into a storm, rather than vice versa.

The trade publication Power Technology reported in 2021 that the manufacturer Vestas paid out roughly $200 million for claims related to lightning-produced turbine damage in the second quarter of 2020.

Data from Project LEE may help determine the extent to which turbine-triggered flashes, as opposed to downward-propagating strikes, are the predominant lightning type in snow bands close to wind farms.

For the project organizers, it’s a huge relief to get a marquee event near the front end of a field campaign. Atmospheric field work is sometimes hobbled by the inherent rarity of the top-tier events they aim to document. Even when the quarry is as seemingly reliable as a tornado in Oklahoma, or a hurricane in Florida, any field campaign can be left short by the vagaries of a particular season.

As Wurman puts it, “Collecting scientific data in an extremely high-end event is rare.”

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