The Buffalo Bills lost to the New England Patriots on December 28, 2008. But both lost to Weather. The score was Weather 75 – New England 13 – Buffalo 0. The 75 was the reported peak wind gust at Buffalo Airport, a scant 9 miles north-northeast of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills home field.
While strong winds are not unusual in Buffalo, especially in the winter, wind gusts to 75 miles per hour (mph) are unusual almost everywhere (except perhaps Mount Washington, NH and the eastern slopes of the Colorado Rockies). The Mount Washington Observatory (elevation 6,288 feet) still retains the record for the highest reported and recorded wind gust – 231 mph on April 12, 1934.
On December 28, 2008, the culprit was a rapidly intensifying and quickly moving surface low-pressure system (which the day before had contributed to more than 130 thunderstorm-related severe weather reports, mostly high winds) across the middle Mississippi River Valley. The storm system also contained a very strong pressure gradient (or large change in pressure across a relatively small distance). This type of pressure pattern, in which isobars or lines of constant pressure are wrapped tightly around a high- or low-pressure system, often brings strong and gusty winds (see Figure 1 – weather map; Figure 2 – station plotting model code).
Another contributing factor was the transport of high velocity air from aloft to the ground. On the early morning of December 28, winds were reported at 75 mph at 10,000 feet above the ground in the Buffalo area. As colder, more dense air moved in aloft, it sank, bringing its wind motion with it. Meteorologists refer to this as “momentum transfer.”
As a result, the intense pressure gradient on the southwest side of the low-pressure system was enhanced further. And the high-speed winds were able to accelerate the front toward and past Buffalo.
Based on reports from the National Weather Service, the Buffalo area and surrounding counties suffered widespread power outages. In addition, several jetways were blown into the terminal building at the Buffalo International Airport. There was even damage to the roof of the Buffalo Bills field house. As the winds drove water to the eastern shore of Lake Erie (known as a seiche), water levels at the Buffalo Coast Guard Station rose slightly above flood stage. This is very similar to a hurricane’s storm surge, except it occurs on a lake rather than a coastline.
But, Buffalo was not alone in receiving strong winds. Detroit and other areas in southeast Michigan and also parts northeast Ohio were affected as well. Trees and tree limbs knocked down power lines. More than 400,000 Michigan residents lost power during the storm event. It took several days to restore power to the region.
The storm system left almost as quickly as it came. But a series of “Alberta Clippers” (fast-moving low pressure systems that originate in Alberta, British Columbia) were expected to follow. One of these brought 100 mph winds to the Boulder, CO area on December 30th. And in the aftermath of yet another, New Year’s Eve revelers from Washington, DC northeastward shivered in near zero (or colder) wind chills.
So, when windy winter weather is expected in your area, check out the weather map. Or even better, check out the weather map and predict the onset of the high winds (it might impress your friends or spouse). Look for those close together isobars and compare their spacing to the forecast and observed winds. You may just discover that you can anticipate the weather.