When the rest of the country hears the term "lake effect snow," I think they understand it to mean "if you live near a Great Lake, you get a shit-ton of snow for some, like, complicated meteorological reason." And then Buffalo gets a shit-ton of snow, and the national newscasters earnestly explain the science (cold mass of air moving over a warmer body of water, blah blah), and that seems to confirm it. Great Lakes = lots of snow.
But that's not the relevant fact about lake effect snow. Lake effect snow, as Cosimo says is "guerrilla snow." If most snowstorms advance like a conventional army, cutting a wide swath of destruction--worse in some places, to be sure, but leaving nothing in the region unaffected--lake effect snow comes out of nowhere and then vanishes into nowhere, targeting areas completely randomly and unpredictably.
The photos from Buffalo are jaw-dropping. But no one's showing you photos that illustrate that while some communities in or adjacent to Buffalo got several feet of snow, many of their immediate neighbors got just a few inches.
I live an hour east of Buffalo, and the portion of the Thruway that runs just 15 miles south of me has been closed for days. Reasonably enough, I've been fielding emails from family and friends wondering how many feet of snow we're under.
Let me show you (and bear in mind, this is four days' worth of accumulation):
For reference, this is Depew, less than an hour away:
(Photo credit: Derek Gee, The Buffalo News, via AP)
I'm grateful not to have been clobbered as Buffalo was, but the real menace of lake effect snow isn't the volume so much as the unpredictability. When you're driving somewhere, you can't get ahead of a storm or wait it out because you never know exactly where it's coming from.
This is what highway driving is like when you're in a region where "possible scattered lake effect storms" are predicted: dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, WHITEOUT.