On November 5, 2014, spiral-shaped Super Typhoon Nuri lost its eye and began to morph into a comma-shaped extratropical cyclone as it approached the cool waters of the Bering Sea. After undergoing a rapid strengthening process meteorologists call “bombogenesis,” what emerged was one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded in the North Pacific, a storm with a minimum central pressure that plunged to 924 millibars. (For comparison, the all-time record low for an extratropical cyclone is 913 millibars.)
Two weeks later, the downstream effects of the Bering Sea Superstorm lingered on—in the form of a massive lake effect snowstorm that dropped several feet of snow in communities just east of Lake Erie. While the Bering Sea Superstorm did not directly cause the snow event in New York, it did set the stage for it by nudging the jet stream into an unusual shape that sent a pulse of cool Arctic air south over the central United States.
As that dry, cool air rushed over the Great Lakes, it picked up moisture from the comparatively warm waters of the lakes, creating long cloud lines known as cloud streets. The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP captured this view of clouds streets moving southeast across Lake Superior and east across the other lakes on November 18, 2014.
When clouds reached the edges of the lakes and crossed back over land, they cooled down even more. (Air is generally cooler over land than water, and also the clouds get pushed upward by the land surface.) Lower temperatures and increased altitude make it harder for clouds to retain moisture, so instead they drop it as snow. In this case, the west-southwesterly winds lined up perfectly with the long axis of Lake Erie, so the air was able to pick up an extraordinary amount of moisture. According to the National Weather Service, more than 60 inches (152 centimeters) of snow had fallen by November 18 and more was forecasted to fall.
Captured at the same moment as the natural-color image (top), the false-color image (bottom) was made by assigning blue light to show up as red, and two shortwave infrared bands to show up as green and blue. This band combination is useful for distinguishing between snow on the ground (dark pink), ice clouds (light pink), and water clouds (white). Bare ground is green. Learn more about interpreting false-color satellite imagery by reading “Why is that Forest Red and that Cloud Blue?”
NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Adam Voiland, using VIIRS data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Adam Voiland.