CLEVELAND - You've heard of lake effect snow. We often see thin bands of snow coming in off of Lake Erie. That's why we have what we call a snow belt here in Northern Ohio.
The snow forms when water vapor from a relatively warm lake adds rises into a very cold, dry arctic air mass overhead. This quickly saturates the air, forming clouds and eventually snow on the downwind side.
But have you ever heard of nuclear power plant snow? Well it happened recently in western Pennsylvania. The Doppler radar from the nearby National Weather Service Office in Pittsburgh captured the scene.
During the early morning hours of Jan. 22, the cooling towers from the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant, near Pa., produced a narrow band of snow that traveled east from the stacks across the greater Pittsburgh area. Conditions were just right: Bitterly cold air, relatively quiet winds and lots of warm water vapor from those cooling towers.
"Steam from each of Beaver Valley's two cooling towers evaporates into the environment at a rate of about
10,000 gallons per minute." said John Ostrowski, Beaver Valley Systems Engineer, "This moisture can rapidly change to snow when temperatures are very cold."
The snow band produced was about 2 miles wide and extended east about 30 miles over southeast Beaver County and northern Allegheny County. What's more, residents underneath this band reported over an inch of fluffy snow!
"Essentially it's a micro-scale of what a lake effect snow event is," added National Weather Service Meteorologist Lee Hendricks. "Warm, moist air moving over a cool surface, cooling the air and causing it to lose the moisture in the clouds. In this case, it came down as snow."
The Beaver Valley Nuclear Facility is right next door to FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield fossil power plant. This facility has three cooling towers of its own. The snow was likely produced by "the combined plumes from the five cooling towers," concluded Ostrowki.
Oh, yes. The question most often asked to weather service officials after this snow fall? "Is this snow radioactive?"
"Nope," said Ostrowski."Radiation is contained within the plant. Everything that comes out of those stacks is just water."