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Last week’s Buffalo snowstorm may have broken state records

The National Weather Service is leading an expert team that will review whether amounts that topped 6 feet were legitimate

Heather Ahmed uses a shovel to dig a path beside a vehicle on Nov. 18 in Hamburg, N.Y. (John Normile/Getty Images)

Areas downwind of lakes Erie and Ontario in western New York are among the snowiest places in the United States. Even against the backdrop of the many impressive storms that have plastered these areas over the years, last week’s snow event stands out.

Just south of Buffalo, snowfall totals associated with the event exceeded 6 feet, cementing it as one of the most prolific on record for the region. It’s possible that the rapid pace with which snow accumulated will break New York’s 24-hour snowfall record and an unofficial 48-hour top mark.

Reports compiled by the National Weather Service office in Buffalo documented extreme totals that maxed out at 81.2 inches in Erie County, which includes Buffalo and its southern suburbs, among them Orchard Park, Hamburg and Blasdell:

These totals, which were reported by trained and untrained public observers, have yet to be officially vetted and certified, according to a statement by the National Weather Service office in Buffalo. While the reports remain “unofficial until they can be verified,” they paint a picture of a storm of historic magnitude in the Lake Erie area.

How Buffalo cleared 80 inches of snow almost as fast as it fell

Mighty snowstorms of the past in western New York

Before Friday, the most prolific Buffalo-area lake effect snow event in modern history likely occurred in mid-November 2014, when three towns in Erie County each measured more than 60 inches of snow.

According to the Weather Service, the 2014 event had some historical precedent: a December 1945 storm during which Lancaster, N.Y., reported snow totals “in excess of 70 inches.”

Last week’s storm seems to have overshadowed both of those events, making it the most prolific lake-effect event in known history for the Lake Erie area.

Two other blockbuster storms — one in October 2006, the other in January 1977 — are well known for their severity in the Buffalo region. But neither involved snowfall totals close to last week’s event. The 2006 storm caused crippling damage despite a relatively modest 24-inch maximum total, because it struck early in the season when trees were fully leaved. The 1977 event involved feet of powdery, already-fallen snow that blew off frozen Lake Erie into the city.

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

It’s possible last week’s storm totals near Buffalo may even top historic amounts from areas downwind of Lake Ontario, which generally see more voluminous lake-effect storms. That’s because Lake Ontario is deeper and larger than Lake Erie, and the hills downwind are higher.

More than 80 inches of snow have accumulated in Ontario-adjacent towns during a handful of storms. In January 1997, several observers atop the Tug Hill Plateau reported totals in excess of 90 inches. A 10-day storm dropped up to 141 inches of snow east of Pulaski in February 2007. And in January 1966, Lake Ontario-adjacent Oswego picked up 102 inches during a long-fused storm. It was during that 1966 event that the state’s 24-hour snowfall record was set: a staggering 50 inches in Camden — about 30 miles northeast of Syracuse.

How last week’s storm may stack up historically

Last week’s Buffalo-area storm may threaten this statewide record. For example, a 24-hour total of 66 inches of snow was reported in Orchard Park. In addition, a reported total of 72.4 inches from Nov. 18-19 near Hamburg may break New York’s unofficial two-day snowfall record of 69.3 inches.

However, these amounts have not yet been certified and more investigation is required to see if they were legitimate. If weather observers measure snow amounts more often than every six hours, for example, their reports can be disqualified because such frequent reporting tends to inflate totals. Too-frequent measuring nullified a potential record from the January 1997 storm.

Here’s what to know about lake-effect snow

According to the Weather Service in Buffalo, a team that includes members of its office, the Weather Service’s Eastern Region Headquarters, the New York state climatology office, the Northeast Regional Climate Center and the National Centers for Environmental Information will evaluate last week’s snowfall reports to determine whether a new 24-hour snowfall record was set.