Leigh Marts, en route from St. Louis to Phoenix, spotted something strange out the window of her Southwest Airlines flight. She saw a thin strip of white, flanked by bare grass, painted across the Kansas prairie. Even above Hutchinson in Kansas, a similar phenomenon was spotted. 

Weather satellites discovered a narrow band of unusually intense snowfall, which extended over 10 to 15 miles in certain places. The weather was such that at its peak, the snowfall exceeded a foot in the band and was only scattered a few miles on either side of the band.

A thin band of snow stretched from northwest to southeast in parts of Lincoln, Russell, and Ellsworth counties in Kansas. The snow stayed toward Cottonwood Falls and Marion.

Flight-tracking data shows that the plane took off heading west-southwest from Wilson and Dorrance. It was a 15-minute drive away from Russell and about 40 minutes northeast of Great Bend. Lake Waconda, located west of Beloit, could be seen in the distance.

Weather forecasters have long struggled to accurately predict the path of winter storms. But the snow band was unusually strong and nothing like most long-range forecasts from the Great Plains.

Snow bands like this emerge by processes on the local or mesoscale level. Therefore, unlike massive snow systems with well-established patterns, weather models cannot predict these bands days in advance – until the flakes start falling. 

Weather systems are composed of many types of air, and if two masses of it come together in calm conditions, they can pool up and form clouds. If a single mass comes together, though, it can add to the weight of the clouds by sucking moisture out of the surrounding air. 

Localized swaths of snow are common in lake-effect snow bands, but the amounts decrease quickly outside of them. Once the weather forecasters at the National Weather Service in Wichita realized that the snowstorm would bring warning-level snowfall, they issued a winter storm watch.

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