North America

Waterworld: 10 Cities To Watch On Lake Ontario’s Southern Shore

Living next to a river, lake, or sea can have both benefits and drawbacks. Some of the benefits include access to shipping, the ability to relax on a beach or a boat, and the fact that large bodies of water tend to have a temperate effect on their local climates, keeping their cities cool in summer and warm in winter. Some of the drawbacks include being an impediment to road travel (you usually can’t drive a car on water), flooding, and Snowbelts.

While most US cities continue be located next to major rivers or bodies of water, these cities have tended to sprawl away from their bodies of water in recent decades, forming suburban areas further inland, such as Akron, Ohio or Warren, Michigan. In addition, many of the fastest-growing American cities have been in inland areas, like Phoenix, Atlanta, Las Vegas, or Austin. Water has taken a backseat.

In this article we will look briefly at ten places — 4 in Canada, 6 in the US — near Lake Ontario that have been shaped by water, and that might soon experience a revival because of water.

1. Hamilton 

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The city of Hamilton has the only significant natural harbour in the western half of Lake Ontario. Back in 1870, when water transportation was still more important than it is today, Hamilton’s population was half as large as Toronto’s. Hamilton’s land transportation, however, has been limited by its harbour, as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Thus Hamilton has not been able to expand (or sprawl) in the way Toronto has. Hamilton’s population today is only 10-15 percent as large as Toronto’s.

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The Niagara Escarpment

 

2. Niagara-on-the-Lake 

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Niagara is shaped by water — and not just because of the nearby Falls. It is an example of what we will call a “crow-flies city”: it is far closer to Toronto as the crow flies than it is via land. In fact it is only 48 km from downtown Toronto via Lake Ontario. To put that it perspective, Barrie is 85 km away from downtown Toronto, and Hamilton is 60 km from downtown Toronto. Via land, however, Niagara-on-the-Lake is roughly 25 km from downtown Toronto. As such, if crossing Lake Ontario were to become easier, Niagara-on-the-Lake may benefit. In a forthcoming article we will discuss whether or not this is likely to happen.

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The Niagara River meets Lake Ontario

3. Fort Erie  

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While the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (population 18,000) and its neighbouring cities St Catharines (population 130,000) and Niagara Falls (pop. 80,000, plus 50,000 more who live on the US side of the city) are crow-flies cities vis-a-vis Toronto, via Lake Ontario, the small city of Fort Erie (population 31,000) is a crow-flies city vis-a-vis Buffalo, via the Niagara River. Although the Peace Bridge crosses the river, it tends to be crowded with border traffic, and it is an out-of-the-way route for the southern areas of Fort Erie. So, if it becomes easier to cross the 3 km-wide river border between Fort Erie and Buffalo’s harbour, Fort Erie may benefit.

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The Peace Bridge


4. Youngstown  

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Niagara is a crow-flies city via lake, and Fort Erie via river, but the village of Youngstown (population 2000) in upstate New York is both.

Like Niagara-on-the-Lake, Youngstown is less than 50 km from downtown Toronto via Lake Ontario, but more than 125 km from Toronto via land. In addition, the Niagara River blocks Youngstown from the nearby town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and city of St Catharines. As the crow files, Youngstown is only 1 km from Niagara-on-the-Lake and 18 km from downtown St Catharines. However because theres is no bridge over the Niagara River north of Lewiston, Youngstown is 23 km from Niagara-on-the-Lake by car and 28 km from St Catharines. Youngstown would benefit from easier crossings of the river, the lake, and the US-Canada border.

The nearest US city east of Youngstown, meanwhile, is Lockport (population 21,000), 30 km away next to what was once America’s most important canal, the Erie Canal.

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The Erie Canal


5. Buffalo 

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Buffalo too owes its significance to the Erie Canal. Indeed, prior the modern era of plentiful railways and highways, the canal allowed Buffalo to become America’s 10th largest city in the 1860s — and the fourth largest among cities without an ocean port. Buffalo remained the fourth largest city in the US without an ocean port until the 1900s. Today, however, the canal is used mainly by pleasure craft, and Buffalo’s location within the Great Lakes’ Snowbelt has made the city languish. Buffalo is now thought to be just the US’ 76th most populous city and 46th most populous “urban area”. It is the snowiest in the top 100.

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Buffalo

6. Welland 

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While the Erie Canal was America’s most important, the Welland Canal was and continues to be Canada’s. Whereas the Erie Canal is nearly 600 km long, the Welland Canal is only 43 km. But in order to bypass the Niagara Escarpment between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, it covers almost as much elevation as Erie’s does. The city of Welland (population 52,000) sits on an oval-shaped island formed by two branches of the canal, one in use (approximately 3000 ships use it each year) and the other branch not.

Because it is still used for shipping, the eastern branch of the canal in Welland is crossed only by two lift-bridges and two tunnels. Most of Welland remains next to the canal’s western, recreational branch (which was used from 1932, when it was built, until 1973, when the eastern branch was added). The western branch is less of an impediment to road traffic than is the eastern branch, since the western branch is crossed by seven bridges that do not ever need to be raised in order to let ships pass beneath them.

Welland is the largest island city in Ontario, and the largest one in Canada (I think) apart from Montreal, St John’s, Victoria, or Nanaimo. The city is 70 km from Toronto by air, 110 km by land. Downstream from Welland is St Catharines, upstream is Port Colborne (population 18,000).

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Welland Canal

 

7. Grand Island 

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20 km east of Welland, back on the US side of the border, is another small island city, Grand Island (population 20,000). It is located on a circularly-shaped island roughly 10 km in diameter, which is linked, by two bridges, to Buffalo in the south and to Niagara Falls in the north. Yet no bridges link Grand Island to either Canada in the west or to Tonawanda (population 100,000) in the east. While Grand Island is only around the 140th largest island in the United States terms of area, it is in the top ten in terms of island populations.

The circular shape of the island might perhaps also prove significant — circles are, at least in theory, the most efficient shapes to build cities within. Grand Island also gets less snow per year on average (82 inches) than nearby Buffalo (95 inches), but more than nearby Niagara Falls (76 inches). Finally, Grand Island is next to the large hydroelectric dams at Niagara Falls. These have made New York the largest hydro producer in the country behind only Washington state and Oregon —without even counting the 45 percent of Niagara hydropower produced in Ontario.

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The Falls

 

8. Rochester 

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Much like Buffalo, Rochester (population 210,000) is an Erie Canal city in the Snowbelt. It gets 100 inches of snow per year on average, more than any city in the US with a population of 100,000 with the exception of Syracuse (124 inches of snow; population 140,000), 120 km to Rochester’s east. The only other US city which comes even close to Rochester in terms of both size and snow is Erie, Pennsylvania (101 inches of snow; population 99,000). The future of all these Snowbelt cities may be tied to questions such as: “will smarter cars and trucks allow driving on country roads during a snow squall to become less dangerous?”, or “will aging Baby Boomers take up cross-country skiing en masse?”

Rochester, unlike Syracuse or Buffalo, is a middle-of-the-lake city: Lake Ontario stretches approximately 150 km to Rochester’s east and 175 km to its east. It is a bit of a crow-flies city vis-a-vis Toronto (150 km vs 250 km). But across the lake from Rochester there are no major Canadian cities. There are only smaller cities, such as Cobourg, Belleville, Oshawa, and Peterborough. Rochester is not the biggest middle-of-the-lake city on the Great Lakes; it is second to Milwaukee (population 600,000). However Rochester is the biggest mid-lake city within the Snowbelt, ahead of others like Sudbury, Erie, and Grand Rapids.

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Rochester

 

 

9. Ovid

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Many of the cities in upstate New York were given Classical names. Of the 20 most populous cities in the state, five fit this bill—Syracuse, Utica, Troy, Rome, and Ithaca. The tiny town Ovid (population 600), which along with Romulus (4,000) is one of the two seats of Seneca County, fit the pattern too. Though it is very small, and located 62 km from Lake Ontario, Ovid arguably deserves our attention here anyway. This is because of Ovid’s position between New York’s largest “Finger” Lakes: Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.

With the exception of Lake Michigan, Cayuga and Seneca are by far the two lengthiest, and most voluminous, lakes that lie entirely within the northeastern United States. Ovid sits at an elevation roughly 100-150 metres above the surface of the lakes, roughly five km from shores of the two lakes and 30 km from both the northern and southern tips of the lakes.

Ovid is different from all of the larger cities in the Finger Lakes region, such as Ithaca (where Cornell is located), Auburn (population 28,000), Geneva (13,000), Seneca Falls (located on the canal that links both lakes to the Erie Canal), or Canandaigua (11,000). Unlike Ovid, all of these cities are located by the tips of the lakes, rather than by their middles.

The reason for this is partly because the tips of glacial lakes like the Fingers tend to be where lowlands are located: unlike Ovid, none of these cities sit at elevations that are tens of metres above lake-level. Mostly, however, these cities are located at the tips of the lakes for the same reason that Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland are located at or near the tips of the Great Lakes. Cities in the middle of lakes have fewer directions available for roads.

Thus Ovid faces a similar question to that faced by most of the other cities we have discussed thus far: can crossing its adjacent lakes become easier? Cayuga and Seneca lake are both only around 5 km wide in most areas, and in many places are far narrower than that. Were Cayuga, Seneca, and the other Finger Lakes to become easier to cross, a place like Ovid might become one of the more unique and interesting locations in the US.

Ovid is also a minor crow-flies city, vis-a-vis both Toronto (235 km vs 325 km) and Syracuse (65 km vs 90 km). And in addition to being a middle-of-the-lake town in relation to both Cayuga and Seneca, it is also, in a sense, a middle-of-the-lake town for Lake Ontario. It is only about 80 km away from Rochester, and 135 km south of areas in Ontario.

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Ithaca, NY

 

10. Watertown

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The final city on our list is the aptly named Watertown (population 28,000), which is a sort of mirror image of Hamilton (population 537,000), only a lot smaller, snowier, and not Canadian. Like Hamilton, it is located at the tip of Lake Ontario (though the eastern tip, not the western tip), has an excellent natural harbour, and is sandwiched between its harbour on one side and highlands on the other. But whereas Hamilton’s highland is  the top of the Niagara Escarpment, Watertown sits in the shadow of the much more formidable Adirondack Mountains.

Watertown’s nearest significant neighbours are the cities of Oswego (population 18,000) and the Canadian city Kingston (population 160,000). Watertown is a bit of a crow-flies town vis-a-vis Kingston: it is 50 km as the crow flies across Wolfe Island, but 90 km via  bridge.

More notably though, Watertown is an extreme Snowbelt city. The Watertown-Oswego-Adirondack region is the snowiest in the United States apart from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, parts of the Rockies, and parts of Alaska. Watertown gets about a third more  snow than Buffalo or Rochester do, and nearly double the amount of snow that Toronto does. Areas in the western foothills of the nearby Adirondacks get even more: the town of Boonville (population 2,000), for example, 70 km southeast of Watertown, gets more than 200 inches of snow per year on average, making it perhaps the snowiest place in the US among towns or cities with at least 1,000 residents, excepting only Valdez, Alaska (population 4,000), Crested Butte, Colorado (pop. 1,500) or Hancock, Michigan (4,500).

Watertown is also just 200 km away, across the Adirondacks, from Lake Champlain, which is by far the largest lake in the United States east of the Great Lakes and north of Florida.

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Lake Placid, NY, in the Adirondacks

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North America

Fasten Your Snowbelts – Technology and the Great Lakes

Outside of the Rocky Mountains, most of the snowfall in the United State falls within the Great Lakes “Snowbelts”. So too does a significant portion of the snow that falls within Canadian cities. These Snowbelts are located, almost entirely, in Michigan, upstate New York, or Ontario:

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The Great Lake Snowbelts

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Source: USA.com; Portacup

In the map above, which shows average yearly snowfall in the more than 3000 counties of the United States, there are just 29 counties (according to my count) that receive 120+ inches of snow, 30 counties that receive 100-120 inches of snow, 50 counties that receive 80-100 inches of snow, and around 100 counties that receive 60-80 inches of snow.

13 of the 29 with 120+ inches of snow are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (8 of the remaining 16 counties with 120+ inches of snow are in Colorado). 15 of the 30 counties with 100-120 inches of snow are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (compared to 5 in Colorado and 5 in Vermont or Maine). 24 of the 50 counties with 80-100 inches are in the Great Lakes Snowbelts (compared to 7 in Colorado, 4 in Alaska, and 9 in Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine). And about half of the 100 or so counties with 60-80 inches are in states which border the Great Lakes.

As you can see in the maps below, this has had a big impact on urban development within the Great Lakes basin. The largest cities, namely Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and most of Cleveland-Akron, are located outside of the region’s snowbelts. Chicago, for example, gets only a third of the snow on average that Rochester, NY gets in any given year, and a sixth of what cities like Oswego, NY get.

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With the exception of Sault St Marie, each of these cities has a population of at least 100,000. Sault St Marie is the quintessential Great Lakes city, however; it is located around the place where Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan, the three largest great lakes, converge. It has a population of 75,000 on the Canadian side of the city and 14,000 on the US side. New York City, meanwhile, is obviously not on the Great Lakes, but I included it anyway to show as a comparison    …also, please forgive our misspelling of “Erie” on the graph above

There are, of course, some notable cities within the Great Lake Snowbelts. Buffalo, for example, which serves as New York state’s outlet on Lake Erie, was the 8th most populous city in the United States in 1900, and the 4th most populous city in the US that did not have an ocean port. (A year later, in 1901, President Mckinley was assassinated in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition). This was before the construction of the US’s road and rail networks stripped the Erie Canal, and thus Buffalo, of most of its economic significance. Today Buffalo is estimated to be just the 76th most populous city and the 46th most populous “urban area” in the country. It has recently had one of America’s fastest shrinking populations.

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Erie Canal

Erie, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, was the country’s 69th most populous city in the US in 1930. Erie once served as the meeting place for three separate American railway networks, which used different gauges as one another, before these networks were standardized during the middle of the 19th century. Today Erie is not even in the top 300 most populous cities in the US and is just its 183rd most populous “urban area“. It too has a fast-shrinking population.

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Rochester and Syracuse were the 22nd and 40th most populous cities in the US in 1930, respectively, but are now just the 103rd and 182nd most populous cities and the 60th and 90th most populous “urban areas”. Rochester and Syracuse serve as New York state’s outlets on Lake Ontario, just as Buffalo does on Lake Erie. Rochester is located 11 km inland from Lake Ontario and Syracuse 53 km inland, however, unlike some of the non-snowbelt cities on Lake Ontario like Toronto, Hamilton, and Kingston, which are situated directly on the lake.

Grand Rapids is listed as the 123rd most populous city in the US and the 70th most populous “urban area”. It is Michigan’s second largest city and serves as the state’s chief outlet on Lake Michigan. Like Syracuse, it too is located inland: it is 50 km upriver from the Lake. As you can see in the map below, Grand Rapids is the only place along Lake Michigan’s coast where the lake’s coastal lowland (the green areas on the map) extends relatively far inland.

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Note, by the way, how Lake Superior presents challenges to urban development: it is further north than the other Great Lakes, has snowbelts on both its eastern and its southern shores, and it has very narrow coastal plains overlooked by escarpments. The main Lake Superior port city of Duluth, Minnesota gets more snow (86 inches) than any other city in the state –  a lot more snow in most cases. (Minneapolis gets 54 inches). Thunder Bay, which is Canada’s primary Lake Superior outlet, gets 64 inches of snow.

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I forgot to add Syracuse, which should be second on this list: it gets 123 inches of snow on average, according to currentresults.com.

Cleveland’s numbers on the graph above are somewhat misleading. They are skewed upward because some of Cleveland’s suburbs, like Broadview Heights, usually get much more snow than Cleveland proper does. Akron, meanwhile, gets even less than Cleveland: just 47.4 inches of snow a year. Akron gets less than half of what nearby Erie in Pennsylvania gets. Pittsburgh, by the way, gets 41.9 inches of snow a year, on average.

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Outside of the big and medium-sized Great Lakes cities, there are places in the Snowbelts that get even more snow. Lake Ontario coastal towns in the area from Oswego (population: 18, 142) to Watertown (population 27,823), get well over 100 inches of snow a year. Marquette in Michigan and Owen Sound in Ontario do too. And even smaller places like Boonville, New York (population 2056), in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (population 4596) get more than 200 inches on average. According to this source, Hancock is the snowiest city in the United States among cities or towns with at least 1000 residents, with the exception of Valdez, Alaska or Crested Butte, Colorado.

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…assuming you don’t get caught in a whiteout

 

Why does any of this matter? 

The Great Lake Snowbelts have posed challenges for urban development thus far. Buffalo is by far the most populous snowbelt urban area, and even Buffalo is not a big city. And apart from Erie, Rochester, and Syracuse in the US or London, Barrie, and Sudbury in Ontario, there are no other Great Lake cities that get more than 70 inches of snow a year on average and have populations of at least 100,000. It simply has not made sense to grow a city in a place with so much snow.

Technology, however, could be a game-changer when it comes to dealing with snow and with snowstorms, which could in turn could give a boost to the economies – or real estate values – of this region. This is particularly relevant given that this is a region that otherwise has great assets, such as the Great Lakes and physical proximity to Manhattan, Toronto, Chicago, and other major North American cities. Indeed, even the snow itself can be an asset once its limitations can be overcome. Snowfall is not only beautiful, but also provides recreation (skiing, cross-country skiing, taboganning, etc.) and can help to prevent forest fires.

One technology that could help the Snowbelt is self-driving snowplows. It makes sense that self-driving snowplows should come into operation even before self-driving cars or trucks do, as snowplows are often in demand overnight, when few other drivers are on the road and labour costs are high. Snowplows drive and work slowly, meaning that plowing roads normally tends to be labour-intensive and that self-driving plows working overnight would probably not be as much as a safety hazard as faster self-driving cars might initially be.

Similarly, snow-clearing robots can help clear parking lots, sidewalks, and, most helpfully, rooftops. Rooftop snow can be especially damaging to buildings, and is often difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to clear.

Another technological change is e-commuting and e-commerce. If you do not want to commute to work following a heavy snowfall, you may now work from home instead, or from an office or co-working space near your house. And you may order your groceries directly to your house.

If you do not want to drive while it is snowing or has recently snowed, you may also soon be able to use an app like Uber or Uberpool to get around in a vehicle that can better handle harsh conditions.

And if you are driving, you can use tools like GPS and smarter cars to better handle snow. Today, driving in a road that does not have street lighting while it is snowing can be hugely irritating and dangerous; when you turn your headlights on the light ends up scattering off the snowflakes, making it nearly impossible to see. There is also often snow covering the surface of the road, making it difficult to see the barrier between your lane and the lane for oncoming traffic. You often have to drive extremely slowly, and even then can easily get your car stuck in a snowbank or suffer a car accident.

GPS can help you can quicker emergency response or roadside assistance. And technologists are working on tools to help cars and trucks navigate through heavy snowfall and help drivers to avoid getting into accidents when in rough, wintry conditions. Self-driving trucks travelling overnight could also help get trucks off the road during the daytime, and to save truckers the trouble and danger of having to drive through a snowstorm.

Now, a little bit more on the Snowbelt:

Nearly all the Snowbelt are in Ontario, Michigan, or upstate New York. The snowbelts in upstate New York and Eerie, Pennsylvania are strategically located at the “backdoor” to the Boston-to-Washington megacity (which you can see in the map below), and are similarly adjacent to the Toronto-to-Detroit (or, more broadly, the Montreal-to-Chicago) region.

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population density/major urban areas in the US

According to Accuweather, of the 10 snowiest “major” cities in the world, three are in New York state (Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse), three are in Canada (Saguenay in Quebec, St John’s in Newfoundland, and Quebec City), and four are in northern Japan (Sapporo, Aomori, Toyama, and Akita). Aomori gets the most by far: 312 inches, compared to second-placed Sapporo which gets “just” 191 inches.

In Canada, unlike the United States, the Great Lakes Snowbelts don’t dominate in the snowfall category, since places further north where the weather is colder often get more. French-speaking cities like Quebec City, Saguenay, and Sherbrooke, for example, get more snow than places throughout much of the Great Lake Snowbelts, mainly because they have very cold climates.

average snow in canada

St John’s, Moncton, and Cape Breton, on the other hand, which are in Canada’s Atlantic Maritime provinces, are actually relatively warm, yet still receive enormous amounts of snow. St. John’s,  which is the largest and snowiest of these three, is actually one of the warmest cities in Canada outside of British Columbia during the winter; its coldest month is February, when it averages highs of -1 degrees Celsius and lows of -9 degrees Celsius. But in return for this “balmy” winter weather St John’s also gets cooler summers than other Canadian cities: its average high in August is just 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Finally, one last thing on Snowbelt snow patterns, from theweatherprediction.com. They can be highly erratic and different to forecast in advance:

“Lake-effect snow has been a forecaster’s nightmare from when maps were drawn by hand to the current days of computer predicted models. But no one computer can accurately predict the magnitude or severity of a lake- effect event with the same success as a synoptic event. To describe lake effect snow as temperamental would be a gross understatement. Often arranging itself in rogue bands of heavy snow, lake- effect can stop and start on a dime, and it can dump a foot of snow on one neighborhood and leave the residents of another wondering why the idiot meteorologist keeps breaking into Oprah about some kind of Lake Effect Snow Warning.

And in its unpredictable nature comes its beauty. One of natures precious wintertime treats, just the prospect of lake- effect snow strikes both fear and awe in the hearts of a forecaster. There are, however, trends. Subtle nuances that fade in the background to the untrained eye, but trends nonetheless. If nothing else, these trends offer a faint possibility that maybe, just maybe, Mother Nature may be following a game plan all along.

…Conditions [for lake-effect snow to form] are so difficult to achieve in one given place that lake effect only occurs in four locations on the entire planet: the southeast shoreline of the Hudson Bay, areas just east of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, and of course, the Great Lakes.

Lake snows generate downwind of the Lakes. Sure, lots of people live near a Great Lake, but only a few lucky ones live downwind. Downwind though, is very much a relative term. One day, it takes a west wind. Another, a north wind. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Pace yourself. Meteorology follows from this point on.Read more here.

 

 

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