Over the course of several days during the last week of February, homes located along the eastern edge of Lake Erie in Hamburg, New York, were quickly transformed into ice-covered igloos. While mesmerizing images like the one above depict the dramatic scene that unfolded along the shore, the situation was nearly disastrous for residents of the area, darkening their homes and forcing them to navigate ice nearly everywhere they went. But, how did these ice structures form and why don’t we see this type of phenomenon happen every winter? Let’s investigate this particular event.
First, let's consider the geographic location of Hamburg. It is a small town that sits approximately 20 minutes south of Buffalo and borders the eastern edge of Lake Erie, a 255-mile long lake that stretches between Michigan and New York. Most winters, a large portion of the lake freezes over by the end of February. In fact, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) reports that over the last 40 years, ice-coverage during the last week of February has averaged 60%, with 92% coverage just last year in 2019. On February 29th, 2020, Lake Erie was merely 10% covered with ice. It is important to note that water changes temperature more gradually than air, this is why lakes do not instantly ice-over as soon as air temperatures drop below freezing, but instead slowly freeze as the air temperature remains below freezing for an extended period of time. Therefore when combined with strong winds directed over the lake and out of the west, a lack of significant ice-coverage can allow for the formation of very large waves along the shoreline. When these waves crash onto land and into surfaces such as houses and walkways with temperatures well below the freezing mark, the liquid molecules instantly freeze and, over time, can create the captivating yet dangerous scenic picture above.
These ice structures occur so rarely because they require this perfect combination of weather conditions. A majority of Lake Erie must remain liquid water well into the winter months and requires a storm that contributes high winds from just the right direction to cause high waves that crash into surfaces cold enough for instantaneous freezing to occur. While coinciding only rarely, this particular meteorological setup helped create some of the most fascinating and unique homes in America for a few days at the end of February along the eastern shoreline of Lake Erie.
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©2020 Weather Forecaster Dennis Weaver