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Inland Northeast Gets Record-Burying Snow

By: Bob Henson 4:40 PM GMT on March 15, 2017

If the millions of people living along the I-95 corridor were situated just 100 miles northwest, they’d be digging out on Wednesday from one of their biggest March storms in decades. Instead, the big coastal cities came out of Tuesday’s storm with relatively little impact, while many points inland are still buried.

There was no second-guessing the intensity of the fast-hitting storm, dubbed Stella by The Weather Channel. Surface pressures dropped at incredible rates downstream of the surface low (see Figure 2 below), on par with pressure drops observed with some hurricanes. The quick intensification led to very strong winds, especially along the New England coast. On Cape Cod, Wellfleet, MA, gusted to 79 mph, and widespread gusts to 50-70 mph knocked out power to more than 50,000 customers in northeast Massachusetts. At the storm crescendoed around 6:00 pm EST Tuesday, Boston’s Logan International Airport was enduring northeast winds of 46 mph gusting to 56 mph, with mixed rain and snow and a temperature of 37°F.

Figure 1. People watch as waves crash over the seawall along Lynn Shore Drive as Stella bears down on Lynn, MA, on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Image credit: Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

Figure 2. The NY State Mesonet station at Southold, on the north fork of Long Island, experienced a pressure drop of more than 50 millibars (maroon line on right side of image) in less than 36 hours, with pressures dropping at a rate of roughly 15 mb per 3 hours as Stella approached on Tuesday afternoon, March 14, 2017. Image credit: New York State Mesonet.

Figure 3. The intense surface low associated with Winter Storm Stella (979 mb) was located at the eastern tip of Long Island at 2100Z (4:00 pm EST) Tuesday, March 14. Two-hour pressure falls (blue dashed lines) were analyzed at greater than 9 mb near the coast of Maine ahead of Stella. Image credit: NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center.

Putting the semi-bust into context
Meteorologists were frequent interviewees on Tuesday, explaining why a small shift inland of the rain/snow transition zone had such big consequences on the outcome from Washington to Boston. Probabilistic graphics issued by several National Weather Service offices had amply highlighted the large uncertainties. In some cases, when it became more apparent a given spot would be located very near the transition zone, the probabilistic uncertainties actually grew. One such graphic on Monday night showed that there was a 10% chance that New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport would receive 1” or less, and a 10% chance that it would get 21” or more! Overall, the snowfall amounts in the major East Coast cities came in on the low side of the probabilistic ranges, though in some cases they were below the “expect at least this much” (the lowest 10% range).

The main complication was a slice of warm air several thousand feet thick that was pulled onshore northeast of the fast-strengthening low a bit more strongly than expected. This meant a changeover from snow to a messy mix of sleet, freezing rain, and snow in some of the most heavily populated areas—very unpleasant, but not truly crippling.

Cliff Mass, a professor at the University of Washington, labeled the event “Slushmaggeddon.” He noted that with this storm, heavy precipitation occurred just as expected, even in the big cities, but the form of that precipitation was different than many had expected. In other storms, the big uncertainty isn’t with the type of precipitation but the amounts: the edge of heavy snow can shift just outside of an urban area, leaving the city with much less than expected, as occurred in New York City in January 2015. “Both were difficult forecasts with a large gradient of snow,” said Mass in an email.

Snow and sleet totals along the I-95 corridor included:

2.0” Washington (Reagan National)
5.6” Washington (Dulles)
2.5” Baltimore, MD
6.0” Philadelphia, PA
7.3” Newark, NJ
7.4” New York (LaGuardia)
5.1” New York (JFK)
3.3” Providence, RI
6.6” Boston, MA

You don’t have to go far inland to find much bigger amounts. For example:

14.4” Worcester, MA (50 miles west of Boston)
15.8” Hartford, CT (75 miles west of Providence)

Figure 4. The strong gradient in snowfall amounts near the East Coast is evident in this map of preliminary snowfall totals across southern New England as of 9:00 pm EDT Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Image credit: NWS/Taunton, MA.

Figure 5. A horse and buggy drive through the snow on Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Gap, PA. Image credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum.

Snow-prone Binghamton gets its heaviest 1-day snowstorm on record
Stella’s heaviest snows extended from the Poconos of Pennsylvania across eastern New York and into western Vermont. The large domed portion of the Hutton Sports and Recreation Center at Utica College collapsed on Tuesday night around 7:30 pm EDT (see photos at bottom). Fortunately, the campus was on spring break, and the sports complex had been closed around 2:00 pm, according to a statement from the college. A trained spotter at West Winfield, NY, just south of Utica, reported 42”, and 36” was reported from nearby Ilion, NY.

Some other noteworthy totals:

Binghamton, NY, notched its heaviest-ever 24-hour snowfall with a phenomenal 31.3”, far eclipsing the previous 23” record from Feb. 3-4, 1961. Moreover, all but 0.1” of the snow fell between midnight Monday night and midnight Tuesday night, making for a calendar-day total of 31.2” that smashes the previous calendar-day record of 21.0” from Feb. 19, 1972. Records in Binghamton don’t go back terribly far: only to 1951.

Albany, NY, racked up a storm total of 17”, all falling on Tuesday, which ties for the city’s eighth biggest calendar-day snowfall on record. Five of the other eight top calendar-day snows in Albany history occurred in March. Records began way back in 1884.

Burlington, VT, received 29.6” in the 27-hour period from 9:00 am EDT Tuesday to noon Wednesday, with light snow still falling. This makes it at least Burlington’s third heaviest snow on record, behind 33.1” (Jan. 2-3, 2010) and 29.8” (Dec. 25-28, 1969). Records go back to 1893.

Figure 6. The Binghamton office of the National Weather Service is draped in the city's heaviest snowfall on record early Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Image credit: NWS/Binghamton.

Multiday freeze could be a costly event for Southern growers
Freezing temperatures covered much of the southeastern U.S. on Wednesday, and an even more widespread freeze is likely on Thursday morning. Lows on Wednesday AM included 28°F at the NWS/Atlanta office in Peachtree City and 31°F in Augusta, GA.

A hard freeze warning is in effect for inland northeast Florida and southeast Georgia, where lows are expected to reach the 25°F to 30°F range for several hours, well below record lows for the date. Temperatures may briefly dip below freezing as far southeast as Ocala and St. Augustine, FL. Anything below 29°F in Jacksonville would be the city’s latest-ever temperature so low in records going back to 1871. As we discussed in Tuesday’s post, a widespread hard freeze could have especially large impacts this year because of extremely mild late-winter weather that’s put spring vegetation (including fruit crops) several weeks ahead of schedule.

We’ll be back with our next post by Thursday at the latest.

Bob Henson

Winter Weather

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.