The Truth About Snow in Buffalo

The first iteration of this page went online in 1999. I knew it had changed the discourse around snow in Buffalo when I started hearing elected officials using arguments that I first presented here.

Some Top Ten US Weather Facts

10 Snowiest Cities
1. Blue Canyon, CA
2. Marquette, MI
3. Sault Ste. Marie, MI
4. Syracuse, NY
5. Caribou, ME
6. Mount Shasta, CA
7. Lander, WY
8. Flagstaff, AZ
9. Sexton Summit, OR
10. Muskegon, MI
10 Coldest Cities
1. International Falls, MN
2. Duluth, MN
3. Caribou, ME
4. Marquette, MI
5. Sault Ste. Marie, MI
6. Fargo, ND
7. Williston, ND
8. Alamosa, CO
9. Bismarck, ND
10. St. Cloud, MN
10 Windiest Cities
1. Blue Hill, MA
2. Dodge City, KA
3. Amarillo, TX
4. Rochester, MN
5. Casper, WY and 6. Cheyenne, WY [tie]
7. Great Falls, MT
8. Goodland, KA
9. Boston, MA
10. Lubbock, MA
Source: Williams, Jack. The USA Today Weather Almanac. New York: Vintage Books, c1994, p.125

Okay, Listen Up, Class

What supposedly synonymous-with-Siberia city is entirely absent from these lists? Did anyone notice that the only place in New York (Syracuse) to make a Top Ten is almost 200 miles east of Buffalo? We used to get a lake-effect blizzard every year, but winters in the new century have failed to live up to reputation. The annual Winterfest in February has been canceled more than once due to lack of snow.

Yes, we had a truly spectacular storm in 1977, although it wasn’t fierce enough to make the Top Ten Storms of the Century. The famous Blizzard of 1977 didn’t begin in Buffalo and end at the city line, it crippled the entire northeastern US and southeastern Ontario, Canada.

Here’s the big secret: blizzards are kind of fun.

Here’s the big secret: blizzards are kind of fun. We go home and relax. We shovel each other out. We make cookies and hot cocoa. Heavy snow is the only weather extreme that is so benign it can be used for recreation. I refer, of course, to skiing, ice skating, hockey, and snow sculpture.

But, hey, if these aren’t your cup of tea, then by all means kick back, pop open your beverage of choice, and enjoy your tidal waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, heat waves, volcanic eruptions, acid rain, droughts, floods, and insect plagues.

Okay, you’re thinking, blizzards still tie up a city, don’t they?

Okay, you’re thinking, blizzards still tie up a city, don’t they?

They didn’t used to. I am indebted to the late George Kunz for the following insight. In his posthumously published Buffalo Memories, Kunz wrote about the streetcar era and the heavy-duty trolley plows used to clear routes in the winter:

“I do not remember any protracted urban paralysis following those storms of half a century ago. The reason lies partially in the fact that transit ridership was high, and streets were free of disabled cars. [Trolley] plows were unhampered. Today most workers rely on motor cars for commuting to jobs. Many live outside the reach of mass transit in the country or in the suburbs. Many others shun public transit, seized by a jejune reliance on the personal car. Given these facts, modern storm paralysis is understandable. Workers drive cars, cars get stuck and are abandoned, snow plows cannot get through to do their job. Result: traffic bans, closing of businesses and ultimately loss of future commercial contracts. The city bleeds.” (p.52)

This is quite logical. If you have to clear only two dozen streetcar routes, your chances of success are much greater than if you have to clear every one of an estimated 800 miles of streets (in the City of Buffalo alone) for, say, 300,000 vehicles. In other words, snowstorms don’t necessarily paralyze cities, but automobile dependence certainly does.  

Metro Rail, our short light-rail line, works fine in any weather. Service has been curtailed or canceled due to snow only three times since Metro Rail opened in 1985.

Consider Johnstown, PA, which once had a spectacular flood. Buffalo has something in common with Johnstown, in that we do not spend our winter under six feet of drifts any more than Johnstown residents spend their summer under six feet of water. Thus it is that the atypical event stands out, attracting widespread notice, thereby obscuring the fact that it is, in fact, not typical. There must be a name for this well-understood media distortion effect.

In 1901, before the advent of down parkas, Polarfleece, snowproof boots, central heat, warm vehicles with snow tires, mechanized snow plows, home insulation, weather sealing, and snowblowers, this author thought that our climate was “delightful.”  Other 19th century sources chide us not for snow but for high winds.

“The climate of Buffalo, with the exception of high winds during certain portions of the winter, is probably as delightful as that enjoyed by any city on the globe. In summer, the temperature is nearly always moderate, and when other cities suffer from extreme heat, the people of Buffalo are blessed with the conditions common to late summer in other regions.”
–Powell, Lyman, ed. Historic Towns of the Middle States. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1901, p. 387.  [Emphasis added.]

My favorite weather proverb, of unknown Scandinavian origin, is, There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

The Real Story: The Best Summers in the Northeast

Percent of Sunshine
June through August

1. Buffalo: 67
2. Boston: 65
3. New York City: 64
4. Baltimore: 63
5. Washington, DC: 63
6. Philadelphia: 62
7. Albany: 61
8. Pittsburgh: 58
Average Rainfall, Inches
June through August

1. Buffalo: 8.69
2. Albany: 8.99
3. Boston: 9.39
4. Pittsburgh: 10.47
5. New York City, 10.65
6. Philadelphia: 11.90
7. Baltimore: 12.05
8. Washington, DC: 12.27
Average Temperature
July afternoon

1. Buffalo: 80F
2. Boston: 81F
3. Pittsburgh: 83F
4. Albany: 84F
5. New York City: 85F
6. Philadelphia: 87F
7. Baltimore: 87F
8. Washington, DC: 88F
Source: Vogel, Mike. “Buffalo is Sunshine Capital of Northeast.” Buffalo News, May 18, 1989, p.A-1

The Bottom Line

Buffalo has more days per year in which the temperature is above 60F than days with snow on the ground. Now, will smug out-of-towners please start aiming your climatological condescension at other targets?

Weather map at top courtesy of: Wood, Jefferson. “Creating a Climatological Snowfall Map for the National Weather Service Buffalo County Warning Area Using an Ordinary Least Squares Regression of PRISM Data with Residual Correction Scheme. Eastern Region Technical Attachment No. 2018-01, January 2018