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Laird Discusses Finger Lakes Weather

In a recent article featured in The Post Standard on, Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird discusses the unique microclimate surrounding the Finger Lakes and their influence on regional temperatures, snowfall and agriculture.

The article, “Finger Lakes satellite photo tells story of snow, ice and wine,” was written in light of a satellite image collected recently by the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite GOES-16 that showed snow-free terrain near Seneca and Cayuga Lakes even though the rest of New York State was covered in snow.

In the interview, Laird describes how lake effect snow, the terrain, sun and depth of the lakes affect seasonal temperatures – creating a more moderate climate around the lakes and an environment famously suitable for vineyards.

“The maximum temperature in the summer remains a little bit cooler, and in the winter the lake has a warming effect on those sloped terrains that is favorable to vineyards,” Laird explains. Read the full story here.

At HWS, Laird teaches a variety of weather and climate courses, leads a geoscience field-study course that allows students to forecast and observe severe thunderstorms across the Central Plains of the United States, and collaborates with students on a variety of research projects.

Laird has a Ph.D. and M.S. in atmospheric sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and completed a B.S. in meteorology from the State University of New York at Oswego.

The full article is as follows:

The Post Standard |

Finger Lakes satellite photo tells story of snow, ice and wine

Glenn Coin • March 22, 2018

Syracuse, N.Y. – A photo shot today by a NOAA satellite tells a tale of lake effect snow and why the Finger Lakes are such a good spot for vineyards.

The photo is dominated by an ice-free Lake Ontario at the top and a snow-dusted Upstate New York. But just below Lake Ontario there’s something remarkable: Two dark, sinuous bodies of water — Seneca and Cayuga lakes — largely surrounded by snowless brown earth.

What’s going on there?

We called Neil Laird, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. He’s an expert on Finger Lakes weather, and he gave us a rundown on that photo and how it helps explain the region’s weather and wine-making.

There are several reasons, Laird said, why that area around the biggest of the 11 Finger Lakes is bare today:

Lake effect snow fizzles out. When north winds blow across Lake Ontario and generate lake snow, Laird said, that snow is generally heavier north of I-90 than south. That wide-open area at the northern ends of the two big lakes gets less snow to start with.

Terrain makes a big difference. Lakes are, of course, lower-lying than the surrounding landscape. Land rises to the east and west of Seneca and Cayuga lakes, and higher ground is also colder ground.

“Where the terrain is a little bit higher, it’s allowing the snow to accumulate a little bit more,” Laird said. “The temperature stays a little bit colder to keep the snow cover on the ground.”

The sun is high in the sky. Now that we’re getting more sunlight than darkness, and the sun angle is higher, the lakes are rapidly warming and releasing heat to the surrounding countryside.

“The sun’s power and energy are getting stronger, and are heating up the water as well as the land,” Laird said. “The lakes act as a heat source, so right along the shorelines there’s less snow than farther away.”

The lakes are very, very deep. Seneca Lake is 618 feet; Cayuga Lake is 435 feet. That means the lakes don’t freeze very easily because they retain heat so well. (Think of a tall coffee cup compared to a bowl.)

It’s also why Lake Ontario, with a maximum depth over 800 feet, stays open all winter while Lake Erie often freezes over. You can see some residual ice on Lake Erie on the left side of the photo.

Compare the deep Finger Lakes to Oneida Lake, that little white “thumb” in the photo just to the northeast of the Finger Lakes. Oneida Lake is very shallow – its average depth is only 22 feet – and so remains covered with ice and snow.

The ability of the deep Finger Lakes to store and release heat is why the region has so many vineyards. The lakes modify the climate, Laird said, keeping the areas around them several degrees warmer in the winter than they would be otherwise.

In the summer, the lakes are much slower to heat up than the land, so the water helps cool the surrounding air.

“The maximum temperature in the summer remains a little bit cooler, and in the winter the lake has a warming effect on those sloped terrains that is favorable to vineyards,” Laird said.

All that from one picture from space.