Stunning Satellite Photo Shows Massive Lake Effect Snow Over Great Lakes

More than 65 inches of snow fell in Erie, Pennsylvania this week from the record-breaking lake effect storm that started on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of photos of the storm on the ground, but views from space reveal bizarre parallel clouds crossing over the Great Lakes. 

The “lake effect” snow storm in Erie happened when cold air, often from Canada, mixed with the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes. The clouds formed from this process create “cloud streets,” which satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration documented in this Christmas Day photo. As far as white Christmas pictures go, these sky-high streets are stunning: 

iodnesdis The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration captured parallel rows of clouds, known as "cloud streets," crossing over the Great Lakes during a lake effect snow storm on December 25,. These cloud formations helped deliver record-setting snowfall in Erie, Pennsylvania, where more than 60 inches of snow fell over a two-day period. NOAA

These types of clouds are likely unknown to many people in the country, as they’re most often seen in the Great Lakes region. CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller explained that the different temperatures between cold, windy air and the warm lakes causes instability. That “water provides a moisture source,” Miller told CNN. “When it gets over land, it deposits water vapor as snow.” The lake effect snow can cause concentrated areas of snow. “You can have 20 to 30 inches of snow, and five miles away only a couple of inches,” Miller said.

But what makes these strange clouds appear parallel? Cloud streets get their shape from the way the warm and cold air interact with each other, according to NOAA. The shape is created when warm air (like from the Great Lakes) rises on one side of the colder air above. Once the warmer air cools and water vapor condenses to form clouds, the once-warm air sinks to the other side. This creates the parallel cylinders, creating its namesake—cloud streets.

More snow is expected this weekend in the Great Lakes area, with an even stronger winter storm forecast in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.

The record-breaking lake effect snow in Erie seemed odd in the wake of one of the hottest years on record, especially with recent snow as far south as Florida and Texas. But the seeming paradox has a pretty simple explanation. All the extra snow, specifically in the Great Lakes region, is related to those warmer temperatures.

The temperature of the Great Lakes is expected to increase due to climate change, and the lakes will remain ice-free for more time throughout the year, according to NOAA’s Tom Di Liberto, who explained the paradox back in January. So long as Arctic air from Canada is mixing with the relatively warm waters of the lakes, there will be lake effect snow. Though, Di Liberto points out, once the cold air from the north becomes warmer over time, there would eventually be less lake effect snow. Instead, it would be rain.