Leigh Marts was on his way from St. Louis to Phoenix on Wednesday when he spotted something rather unusual out the window of his Southwest Airlines flight: a narrow strip of white, flanked by endless bare grass, lay painted across the Kansas prairie below.
A similar sight was seen above Hutchinson, Kan.
Weather satellites confirmed the bizarre feature, which highlights the meteorological caprice that can give rise to such narrow swaths of snow. More than a foot of snow fell in the band, which was only 10 to 15 miles wide at times. Just a few miles on either side, there were hardly flurries.
The thin stretch of intense snow was oriented northwest to southeast, passing through parts of Russell, Lincoln and Ellsworth counties in Kansas. The snow persisted toward Cottonwood Falls and Marion.
Flight data reveals that Marts’s flight crossed over Interstate 70 heading west-southwest in the vicinity of Wilson and Dorrance, Kan., a 15-minute ride east of Russell and about 40 minutes northeast of Great Bend. Waconda Lake, just west of Beloit and Glen Elder, is visible in the distance.
Meteorologists have long vented about the challenges of prediction when it comes to difficult winter storm forecasts. But the razor-sharp nature of Tuesday’s hyperlocal snow band was a step beyond what most Great Plains forecasters are accustomed to.
Snow bands like this are generated by processes on the mesoscale, or local, level. That means that unlike with large sprawling storm systems that can be spotted by weather models days in advance, it’s often impossible to sniff out who will see the jackpot snow totals until the flakes are flying.
Integral to its formation was convergence, or the gentle collision of two air masses at the surface. The “pileup” of air causes it to rise, in turn blossoming into a band of heavy snow showers. That can also cut back on precipitation outside the band, since air exiting the clouds is likely to sink and choke off any snowfall on either side of the axis of best convergence.
The National Weather Service in Wichita did issue a winter storm warning once it became apparent that snowfall amounts would reach warning criteria. A tractor-trailer jackknifed on I-70 at mile marker 277 west. A “significant amount of slide-offs and wrecks” were reported in Saline County along Interstate 135, with visibilities below 200 feet, according to the National Weather Service.
Marts’s photo bore a striking resemblance to a picture captured over Indiana in March 2018. In it, a similarly abrupt edge to the snow is visible from a narrow system that dumped up to 10 inches of snow on parts of Indiana.
Hyper-localized swaths of snow are a common occurrence within lake-effect snow bands; amounts taper off extremely quickly outside the lone, stout snow band.
One such band brought 88 inches of snow to parts of Erie County, N.Y., on Nov. 15-21, 2014. More than five feet fell east of Buffalo between Nov. 17 and 19. Several feet of snow fell at the intersection of Transit Road and Walden Avenue in Depew, while Genesee Street, two miles to the north, saw only a couple inches.
But there are no Great Lakes out in Kansas. Instead, the atmosphere simply must have been feeling a bit fickle. The weather never ceases to amaze.