The lake effect occurs when a cold mass of air moves over a large body of warmer water, picking up moisture and heat to make the air mass rise and cool, ultimately dumping snow downwind.
Atmospheric science Professor Jim Steenburgh says the study shows mountains sometimes are essential to triggering the lake effect over the lakes.
"Most people recognize that mountains get more precipitation than lowlands because of moist air being lifted over the mountains," Steenburgh said. "Everybody recognizes that it plays a role in lake-effect storms.
"What we're showing here is a situation where the terrain is complicated -- there are multiple mountain barriers, not just one, and they affect the air flow in a way that influences the development of the lake-effect storm over the lake and lowlands, rather than just over the mountains."
The findings -- which could help in forecasting lake-effect storms near the Great Salt Lake, Sea of Japan, Black Sea and other mountainous regions -- highlight how even gentle topography near the Great Lakes can enhance lake-effect snowstorms, Steenburgh said.
"It is going to help us with weather prediction -- helping forecasters recognize that in some lake-effect events, the mountains or hills can play an important role in triggering lake-effect snow bands" over large bodies of water, he said.