Posted by: pyeager | March 15, 2009

Blizzard of ’93, Revisited

by Paul Yeager, author of Weather Whys: Facts, Myths, and Oddities

The single most memorable storm of my 20-plus-year weather forecasting career was the Blizzard of ’93 (March 12-15, 1993)—for purely selfish reasons.

As a meteorologist, especially one who spent much of his career forecasting for the western part of the United States, I didn’t often get to be part of the major storms that I was forecasting. I saw them mostly from the a distance. This was not the case for the Blizzard of ’93. Not only did it happen where I lived, but I had the good fortune of not having to work the Saturday of the storm.

From the perspective of a meteorologist who was not focusing on the maps but, rather, experiencing the weather, no storm before —or since—has been like the Blizzard of ’93. I have plenty of pictures, including a shot of my car buried to its side-view mirrors in snow and snow falling so heavily that a gas station sign (indicating gas prices of less than $1.00 per gallon, I might add) could barely be seen.  I can’t upload them since I’m low-tech (no scanner). We had nearly 30 inches of snow, by the way.

One of my most vivid memories is walking to work the next day—since my car was hopelessly buried under feet of snow. I needed to walk down the middle of the street since sidewalks were impassible, and it’s not as if there were any drivers on the roads–many side streets were closed, and cars required hours of digging out to be accessible.

The most important memory of the blizzard, however, was when I realized the danger of being out in the middle of a blizzard. Weather safety is something that I always talked about with clients and the media, but walking into the middle of the blizzard gave me a completely different perspective. When I was taking my aforementioned photographs, for the first time in my life I had the understanding of how people could die hundreds or even tens of feet away from their own front door. The combination of visibility and unending white and grey tones would have made it very easy for me to lose my way—had it been dark or had I strayed farther from my apartment building.

Well, that’s enough of a trip down the snow-blocked memory lane. As far as the meteorology of the storm, the remarkable factors were that the storm represented the merger of three branches of the jet stream. Typically, a merging storm only includes the energy of two branches of the jet stream. This powerhouse of a storm was able to produce snow in Pennsylvania while the center of the low pressure system was still in the Gulf of Mexico. (Wikipedia has a good report on the details of the storm.)

Another meteorologically significant part of the storm is that the computer models forecast the storm with surprising accuracy five days in advance. Computer models have improved greatly since then, but they don’t often project a major storm with such accuracy days in advance.

I’ll just close with a couple of images of the storm, courtesy of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The first is a satellite image while the storm was in the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, and the second is a surface map from a day later, when the storm was moving northward.

NOAA enhanced satellite image of Blizzard of '93

NOAA enhanced satellite image of Blizzard of '93

NOAA surface map of Blizzard of '93

NOAA surface map of Blizzard of '93

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