The Blizzard of ’09 was indeed a historic storm for the Mid-Atlantic including the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas. The storm deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the worst winter storms of the past 25 years. The storm had similarities to both the Blizzard of ’96 and the Blizzard of ’03. But the storm did not have the same far-reaching effects as the “Superstorm” of ’93 and did not have the same explosive growth as the February nor’easter of 2006. Fortunately for the Mid-Atlantic, the Blizzard of ’09 was better forecasted than both the January 25, 2000 nor’easter and the Veterans Day Snowstorm of 1987.
The Back-to-Back Snowstorms of January, 1987 – At the end of the third work week of January, 1987, low pressure to the south of the Washington, D.C. area moved northeast dumping over ten inches of snow throughout south and central Virginia and almost everywhere west of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Then within three days, a second storm dumped over a foot of snow in central Virginia, southern Maryland and the eastern shore. The second storm had less of an impact on the Interstate 95 corridor for that week, but southern Maryland was severely impacted with two feet of snow on the ground by the end of the day on January 25 as a result of both storms. This resulted in school closures for that entire week. Temperatures throughout both storms were in the upper teens and the entire week was frigid.
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the first storm. (Click for larger view of graphics.)
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the second storm.
The Veterans Day Snowstorm of November 11, 1987 – This day that lives in infamy for the Washington, D.C area is detailed here. To summarize, a completely unforecasted low pressure bombed off the North Carolina coast and produced a mesoscale convective snow band that passed through southern Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area. National airport received 11.5 inches of snow and some locations in Prince Georges county to the east of D.C. received up to 17 inches of snow. A storm like this was unheard of in the D.C. area in the fall and the city and surrounding areas became completely paralyzed. Curiously, this storm doesn’t even place in the “notable” category on NOAA’s Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS).
A figure from an American Meteorological Society’s report on mesoscale features within eastern United States winter storms detailing snowfall totals in the Washington, D.C. area from the Veterans Day Snowstorm.
The March, 1993 Superstorm – This “Storm of the Century” ushered in the modern era of meteorologists seemingly fully trusting computer models as a result of this storm being moderately well forecasted by the models three to five days prior to the storm forming. The storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico on March 11 and 12, 1993 and rapidly intensified prior to moving northeast up the Atlantic coast. This intensification brought a line of thunderstorms through Florida and Cuba with 100mph winds and tornados. As the storm went up the coast, record snow fell for many places in the southeast and the equivalent pressure of a category 3 hurricane set low pressure records for many places, including Washington, D.C. At one point, every airport on the eastern North American coast from Halfiax, Nova Scotia to Atlanta, Georgia was closed due to the massive storm. But the storm was not as spectacular for the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area as forecasted, resulting in a foot of snow or slightly more for the Interstate 95 corridor without blizzard conditions. However, much higher accumulations of snow were deposited to the west.
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the March, 1993 Superstorm.
Sterling, VA’s National Weather Service snowfall map for the Maryland and Virginia areas for the March, 1993 Superstorm.
The Blizzard of 1996 – This well forecasted storm in early January of 1996 dumped between about 19 and 24 inches in the Interstate 95 corridor of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore with even higher amounts to the west. The storm was slow moving and had a cold high pressure to the north, resulting in nearly 30 hours of snow for most places with temperatures in the low to mid 20s for the duration of the storm that included 35mph wind gusts. Two additional snowstorms in the next week brought an average snowpack of about three feet across the Mid-Atlantic. When another storm came up the Appalachians and brought heavy rain, significant flooding then occurred across the Mid-Atlantic.
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the Blizzard of ’96.
Sterling, VA’s National Weather Service snowfall map for the Maryland and Virginia areas for the Blizzard of ’96. Curiously, this map shows a section of the Delmarva peninsula receiving two feet of snow, whereas the NOAA map does not.
The January 25, 2000 nor’easter – This storm was by far the biggest blown forecast of the past 25 years for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. On the evening of January 24, 2000, a low pressure system off the South Carolina coast rapidly intensified pushing a band of heavy precipitation into North Carolina while the storm started to move northeast. At the time this was occurring, meteorologists on the east coast were giving the forecast the computer models were giving them, which was perhaps flurries on the beaches. By the time meteorologists realized a severe snowstorm was imminent and issued warnings, most people in the Mid-Atlantic had gone to bed. The snow started falling heavily in the pre-dawn hours in southern Maryland and spread north to D.C. and Baltimore creating near-blizzard conditions. Many locations on the immediate west coast of the Chesapeake Bay reported 18-20 inches of snow after the fast moving storm departed.
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the January 25, 2000 nor’easter.
Sterling, VA’s National Weather Service snowfall map for the Maryland and Virginia areas for the January 25, 2000 nor’easter.
The Blizzard of 2003 – This storm is also known as the second President’s Day Snowstorm (the first of which struck in 1979). No blizzard warnings were issued for this storm in the Washington, D.C. or Baltimore areas, but it fit the definition of a blizzard (at least in Baltimore). The storm was not actually a nor’easter in the Mid-Atlantic, but a result of a baroclinic boundary extending out of an upper level low pressure system to the west. When high pressure to the north strengthened unexpectedly, a convergence zone with thunder snow setup over the Baltimore area causing the bulk of the precipitation to fall. For a six hour period on the morning of February 17, snow was falling at the rate of over two inches per hour with high wind in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and continued at a pace of one inch per hour for the remainder of the day. Snow totals of 28 inches or more were common in the Baltimore area with BWI receiving 28.2 inches in the storm, an all-time record for the airport. The storm then consolidated itself into a true nor’easter off the coast creating more blizzard conditions from New York to New England as it moved northeast.
Sterling, VA’s National Weather Service snowfall map for the Mid-Atlantic for the Blizzard of 2003.
The February 12-13, 2006 Nor’easter – This storm began as a relatively minor low pressure system that moved off the east coast and then bombed, creating mesoscale banding features along the Interstate 95 corridor on February 12. The Baltimore area received over a foot of snow and areas near Columbia and Ellicott City received 18-22 inches of snow as a result of this banding. The explosive growth of this storm took forecasters by surprise and visible satellite imagery as soon as the sun came up that morning revealed a low pressure system with a hurricane-like eye. At this point it was close to being a blizzard and gave New York City its all-time record snow for a storm at nearly 27 inches.
NOAA’s snowfall totals map for the February 12-13, 2006 nor’easter.
The Blizzard of 2009 – On December 18, 2009, a moisture-rich low pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico began moving northeast while an Arctic high pressure system resided to the north of the Mid-Atlantic. Snow began falling in the Mid-Atlantic that evening and continued throughout the night and following day. As the low pressure system approached the North Carolina coast on December 19, it strengthened, resulting in blizzard conditions and convection bands with thundersnow forming in Maryland and southeast Pennsylvania. With moderate to heavy snow falling for a period of about 24 hours, a wide swath of 16-22 inch snow totals (with locally higher amounts) were common throughout most of Virginia, most of Maryland, southeast Pennsylvania, and coastal sections of New England. This first significant storm of the season roughly matched average annual snowfall totals for many major cities.
Modeled Snow Depth for the Blizzard of 2009 from the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC).
Sterling, VA’s National Weather Service snowfall map for the Mid-Atlantic for the Blizzard of 2009.
The Sterling VA NWS office’s average annual snowfall map for the Mid-Atlantic.
The Blizzard of 2009 will be remembered by the Mid-Atlantic for quite some time. With a wide swath of snowfall totals similar to the Blizzard of ’96 and a duration nearly as long, the storm seems destined to be rated in the “extreme” category (or high-end “crippling” category) on NOAA’s Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS). Fortunately for the Mid-Atlantic and the northeast, the storm came through primarily on a weekend and did not significantly affect most people’s work-related activities with the exception of the following three day work week prior to Christmas.
Update (January, 2010): NOAA ranked the Blizzard of 2009 as a Category 3 (Major) storm on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale, rather than an extreme or crippling storm. The rationale is "While snowfall from the December storm ranked in the top ten for Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, the storm only provided a glancing blow to the New York City and Boston metropolitan areas and overall affected a relatively small area. This led to it being classified as a Category 3." This probably explains why the Veterans Day Snowstorm of November 11, 1987 does not appear on the list at all, as it probably did not affect the northeast in any fashion.
copyright © 2009-2010 Colin F. Beaven