“Once in a Generation”: The 2022 Buffalo Blizzard

Truck in snowdrift

A Research Spotlight from 32WAF/28NWP/20Meso

On 23 December, 2022, David Zaff of the National Weather Service’s Buffalo office walked out into a blank white world of howling wind. He headed to his car to get supplies, knowing there was no way to get home. He and his coworkers were trapped at the office, in the middle of one of the most deadly and disastrous blizzards Buffalo has ever seen.

Video by David Zaff, showing whiteout conditions outside NWS Buffalo office, December 23, 2022.

At the height of the 2022 holiday travel season, the four-day blizzard and lake-effect snow event knocked out power for more than 100,000 people, paralyzed emergency services and holiday travel, and left at least 47 dead. New York Governor Kathy Hochul described it as “the most devastating storm in Buffalo’s long, storied history.” Yet days earlier, Zaff and colleagues encountered skepticism from the public as they worked to warn the region.

Presenting at the J3 Joint Session at the 32nd Conference on Weather Analysis and Forecasting, the 20th Conference on Mesoscale Processes, and the 28th Conference on Numerical Weather Prediction, Zaff talked about the disaster and how the NWS countered accusations of hyperbole to get the word out.

Sounding the Alarm

The December 2022 snow was shocking, but not surprising. The pattern was easy enough to recognize, even 7–10 days earlier: a large high-pressure ridge forming over the western U.S., with a major trough in the east. “We knew something big was coming,” said Zaff. Five days before the storm, even low-resolution models suggested a major event. Four days ahead, the NWS started ringing the alarm bell. “We started saying, ‘A powerful storm will impact the region heading into the holiday weekend.’”

Three days out, the NWS issued an unusually emphatic Area Forecast Discussion (AFD):

“Some of the parameters of this intense storm are forecast to be climatologically ‘off the charts’ … One could certainly describe this storm system as a once in a generation type of event.”

NWS Lead Forecaster Robert Hamilton, Tuesday, December 20, 2022

That caused a stir, but many on social media dismissed it as hype. “People started saying, ‘There goes the weather service again,’” says Zaff.

He tried to find a way to show the science graphically, highlighting the forecast as “‘outside’ the climatology” for the time of year.

The graphic and its accompanying description got attention. By then, NWS Buffalo was communicating in earnest, including on social media. A tweet with a text-filled screengrab of the Winter Weather Message received 485,000 views. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” Zaff said, “except when people actually read the words, and see how impressive this event might be.”

Left: Graphic showing forecast surface pressure for Friday, December 23, 2022, with shading showing the relative frequency of the forecast MSLP values in the Buffalo region at that time of year. Source: David Zaff.

Surviving the Storm

Before noon on 23 December, visibility dropped to near zero, and it remained that way until around midnight on 25 December. 500 Millibar heights were “extraordinary” as the pressure trough moved into the Ohio Valley, and surface-level pressure was similarly unbelievable. A top wind speed of 79 mph was measured in downtown Buffalo at 10:10 a.m. on the 23rd, and winds in the 60–70 mph range lasted for 12 hours. “[It was] just an incredible bomb cyclone,” Zaff said. “An incredible storm.”

Zaff and some colleagues slept at the office; others attempted to drive in whiteout conditions using GPS alone, while some got stuck in drifts near the office and had to leave their cars to hike the rest of the way. Meanwhile, firefighters and airport employees worked to rescue motorists trapped nearby.

On December 24, the City of Buffalo issued “the scariest tweet I’ve ever seen,” said Zaff. The tweet stated that there were “no emergency services available” for Buffalo and numerous other towns.

“We knew by this time that there were fatalities occurring,” Zaff said. “And it just got worse and worse.”

Blizzard conditions lasted a full 37 hours–and lake effect snow wouldn’t stop for another two days. Three power substations shut down, frozen solid. Hundreds of power poles fell, and a significant percentage of locals were without power during the storm’s peak (some for days afterwards).

The 47 fatalities included people stranded outside, others who died from hypothermia in their homes, and some deaths due to delayed EMS response, according to Erie County. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on roadways during the storm. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with a proud legacy of operating under even the most horrific conditions, was closed for six days.

Zaff didn’t return home until late afternoon on the 25th, 18 hours after official blizzard conditions were over and having clocked 50+ hours at the office. On the drive, he saw iced-over buildings and trucks buried in snowdrifts. “It reminded me of [the movie] The Day After Tomorrow. … The impacts were tremendous.”

In his AMS presentation, Zaff compared the 2022 event to disastrous storms in 1977 (20+ fatalities, 69 mph winds, only 12” of snow yet drifts swallowed homes) and 1985 (5 fatalities, 53 mph winds, 33” snow), as well as the “Great Christmas Storm” of 1878, one of the first well-documented lake effect snow events, though lake-effect processes weren’t understood at the time. “This will likely be the storm of comparison now,” he says. “Once-in-a-generation” turned out to be right.

Future Lessons

Moving forward, said Zaff later, “Our intention is to further our relations with our Core Partners, including elected officials, emergency management, and the media [and] provide more probabilistic information that supports our ongoing Impact Decision Support Services. We hope to improve our outreach as well, instilling more confidence with the public.”

NWS will continue to provide improved decision support for partners, which may lead to more proactive road and school closures that could save lives in the future.

Photo at top: Buffalo roadways at 4 p.m. on December 25, 2022, 18 hours after blizzard conditions had passed. Photo credit: David Zaff.

About 32WAF/20Meso/28NWP

Predicting and understanding storms and other weather events is a complex business with real-world impacts. The American Meteorological Society’s 32nd Conference on Weather Analysis and Forecasting/28th Conference on Numerical Weather Prediction/20th Conference on Mesoscale Processes brought researchers, forecasters, emergency managers, and more together to learn about and discuss the latest scientific developments. The conferences took place in Madison, WI, and online 17–21 July, 2023. Recordings of the sessions are available here.

After the Disasters, How to Be a Holiday-Ready Nation

Weather took hundreds of lives in a record 12 billion-dollar disasters in the United States in 2011. Internationally, the disaster toll is even more startling. Tragedies have been a commonplace. The record-breaking year is a wake up call to the weather and climate community and to the nation as a whole.
Yet, on a holiday eve, a veteran of some of the worst weather of the year shows us how to give thanks. It was at a meeting, “Weather Ready Nation: A Vital Conversation” this month in Norman, Oklahoma, in an emotional presentation by Keith Stammer. If anyone knows what it means to be Weather-Ready, now, it’s Stammer, the emergency manager of Jasper County, Missouri, where basically a third of the city of Joplin was ripped apart by an EF-5 tornado nearly a mile wide.  (You can listen to Stammer’s description of the ordeal on-line.) Yet here’s how he started his talk:

The big thing you need to understand about Joplin is that at nighttime it is a city of 50,000 people; in the daytime it’s a city of a quarter of a million.  A lot of people come in for shopping, medical, for work. The one thing that translates, into in terms of this particular disaster, was that we are most grateful that it happened on Sunday evening, and not Monday evening, or the totals would have been absolutely different.

That’s a remarkable perspective to take after 162 people died, over a thousand were injured, and nearly 17,000 dwellings were lost. It’s a way to live after a year like 2011.
The discussion about making this country more resilient to the battering and bruising of a violent atmosphere, begun in Norman, will continue at our meeting in New Orleans next month. A Monday lunchtime Town Hall by the same name, organized by the leaders of the Norman conference, will be a highlight (12:15 p.m., Room 238). After Christmas, we’ll report on some of the Weather Ready Nation ideas and comments in The Front Page as preparation for the week’s deliberations.
But before refueling our minds for the Annual Meeting, a holiday is a time to replenish the heart and to experience community, so listen again to Stammer, who ended his talk thanking the 114,677 different people who stepped forward, registered as volunteers, and put in some 697,817 hours of service so far to help Joplin recover (more than a million cubic yards of debris removed so far):

All disasters are local, they start locally; they end locally, they may in fact rise to national prominence somewhere in between as ours did, but in the end, with all due respect, all of you foreigners are going to go away and we’re still left to have to handle it.  I think one of the things that helped us here is the fact that everybody was willing and able to look at this as a local effort. I can tell you that we did not have one organization or person that stood up and said, I’m in charge, you’re not, get over it. It was in fact a collaborative effort from the get-go and remains to be so today.

We are honored to celebrate a holiday with folks like that. We will be proud to make a Weather Ready Nation with them, too.

A Siren Song for Top-Down Emergency-Preparedness Thinking?

Those of us of a certain age and place in the American experience talk a lot about the meaning of tornado sirens–how it defined our awakening to the omnipresent threat of severe weather. Such sounds stick with those of us who have made weather our business–Tim Coleman et al. admit this is part of the inspiration for their history of tornado warning dissemination published in the May 2011 BAMS. The role of community sirens is surging again in research following the horrible tornado disasters of 2011, as witnessed by presentations coming up at the AMS Meeting in New Orleans by Stephanie Mullins (Univ. of Alabama-Huntsville) in the Wednesday 25 January afternoon poster session (2:30-4 p.m., Room 252/53), Kimberley Klockow (Univ. of Oklahoma; same room and day, 11:30 a.m. oral presentation), Cedar League (Univ. of Colorado/Colorado Springs) on Tuesday 24 January (2 p.m., Room 243), and others.
But what we forget is that it’s not just weather experts and the weather-obsessed who respond deeply to the sounds of emergency sirens. Witness the public outcry to a suggestion by emergency managers to standardize times of regular siren tests across a county in northern Michigan recently, reported today in the Petoskey News. Officials were intent on cutting back from twice daily soundings that had become a community ritual. The Charlevoix fire chief told his city council

that many people report that “they don’t even hear the noon or 9:30 sirens anymore” — the exact condition the change in procedure is intended to avoid.

Quite probably true. But people hear even when they’re not listening. Thanks to Dr. Klockow for pointing us particularly to this passage in the article:

Many of those favoring leaving the siren soundings in place pointed to the soundings as a hallmark of a small town. Many said they have fond memories of their kids or themselves being called home for the evening by the siren’s sound. Others said if the siren was discontinued they’d feel like they were losing yet another part of what make Charlevoix unique.