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By Zach Butler, Meteorologist Posted 11 months ago August 9, 2023

Tornado Hits Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Upstate New York

On Monday, August 7th, 2023 an EF-3 tornado hit the Snow Ridge Ski Resort in the Tug Hill Plateau and surrounding areas. This tornado was part of a widespread severe weather outbreak across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. This EF-3 tornado was the strongest and longest tracked tornado across the outbreak with some unusual characteristics associated with it. 

Let’s take a look at the damage reports associated with the tornado, why this tornado was so unusual, and what weather led up to it. 

Tornado Damage Reports

The National Weather Service (NWS) in Buffalo, New York (NY) has recorded this tornado as an EF-3 on a scale of 0 to 5 in terms of wind speed related to damage. The peak winds were estimated at 140 mph with a total track of 16 miles and a maximum width of 700 yards! The length of this track and the strength of the tornado is not something upstate NY is used to.

The full NWS report can be found here detailing the path and damage of the tornado through its 32-minute track. What is especially noteworthy is the impact that the tornado had on the Snow Ridge Ski Resort. 

“Upon reaching Snow Ridge Ski Resort, tree damage increased to snapping of hardwood trees at the rootline and some defoliation. On the ski resort land, all of the chair lift metal cables failed, some chair lift structures were overturned or damaged, and the track of damage greatly widened as the storm continued north-northeastward. The greatest damage of the entire track was from Snow Ridge Ski Resort to the West Wind Motel in Turin. Several structures saw completed roof failures, interior wall failures, window failures, and a one multi-story building was shifted from its foundation with its entire roof removed.”

The photos from the Snow Ridge Ski Resort are breathtaking with large trees snapped in half, and damage to the ski lift and resort buildings. Check out more of them from their Facebook page here.

A look at the radar around 8:08 pm EDT shows another view of how impressive this tornado was! 

The top left is the radar, the top right is the velocity (see comments below), the bottom left is the correlation coefficient, and the bottom right is the differential reflectivity. 

The correlation coefficient and the differential reflectivity are used to show the characteristics of particles within a storm. They can help show hail size or in this case, a debris signature caused by large trees or structures. There is a slight indication of a debris signature in the correlation coefficient in the bottom left. 

In the velocity image in the top right, red colors indicate winds moving away from the radar, and green colors indicate winds moving toward the radar. Brighter shades of each color indicate stronger wind speeds. When bright red and green colors are located next to each other in a tight "couplet", this indicates strong rotation and often means a tornado is ongoing or imminent, which was the case at this time.

While the Tug Hill Plateau is known for its snow via intense lake effect snow bands, this EF-3 tornado and its relatively long track of 16 miles is an unusual occurrence for the Northeast let alone in this part of NY.

Why was this Unusual?

The Northeast and NY are no strangers to tornadoes, albeit it is not a common occurrence. When tornadoes do occur, they are often weak (less than EF-2), track short distances (less than 10 miles), and form in low-lying valleys. This is because the complex topography of the Northeast makes it difficult for tornadoes to gain strength and track long distances. 

The complex topography and added vegetation in the Northeast (Tug Hill included) add friction to the landscape, making it difficult for winds to blow in consistent directions and at consistent speeds. Tornadoes need an ‘easy’ path to track with consistent fuel (winds and moisture) to gain strength and track long distances (greater than 15 miles). 

The Northeast does not have favorable tornado topography, except for the low-lying north-to-south valleys. These valleys throughout the Northeast and Appalachian Mountains are able to channel winds and moisture, which provide a key ingredient at the surface to help allow tornadoes to form. The valleys also contain farm fields, which help limit friction at the surface due to less vegetation. 

The term ‘orographic channeling’ is when low-lying valleys are able to channel winds and moisture, thereby adding a key mechanism to tornado formation if the other parts of the atmosphere are favorable. 

The EF-3 tornado in Upstate NY occurred on the eastern edge of the Tug Hill Plateau in the Black River Valley. While it is not confirmed whether orographic channeling played a critical role in this tornado, it is certainly possible given the track and the winds surrounding this area at the time of the event. 

What Weather Led Up to this Event?

A powerful trough of low pressure approached the Northeast from the west while a cold front also approach the region at the surface. Strong winds aloft associated with this trough contributed to high levels of wind shear (changes in wind speed and direction with height). 

Ahead of the trough, a warm and moist airmass was in place with dewpoints in the 60s across the higher terrain of the Appalachians and 70s across the adjacent lower elevations. This “juicy” air contributed to high levels of instability that fueled thunderstorms as the trough approached from the west.

This atmospheric set-up caused the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) to highlight the significant potential for tornadoes throughout the Northeast on August 7th. 

SPC Tornado Probability Forecast on Monday, August 7th, 2023.

SPC Storm Reports from Monday, August 7th, 2023.

Tornadoes were reported in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as other states in the Mid-Atlanitc, albeit weaker and with shorter tracks. 

The Snow Ridge Ski Resort and nearby towns were some of the hardest hit by this severe weather outbreak due to an unusually strong and long-tracked tornado. The resort has not posted how this might affect the winter operations yet but we hope for a speedy recovery. 

Zach Butler 

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About The Author

Zach Butler

Meteorologist

Zach Butler is currently a PhD student in Water Resources Science at Oregon State University. He just finished his master's in Applied Meteorology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Originally from Maryland, he has grown up hiking and skiing up and down the East Coast. When not doing coursework, he enjoys cooking and exploring the pacific northwest on his bike.

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