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This Blizzard Could Rewrite The Storm Record Books

The Great Blizzard of 2016 (or whatever name you want to give it) is now underway, whitening parts of the Southeast and beginning to crawl up the Eastern Seaboard. This one will challenge records and cause major travel problems from New York through the Carolinas and beyond. Here are a few things to watch for.

Could D.C.’s all-time snow record be topped?

Washington’s top five snowstorms are in the chart below. Depending on which model or forecast you believe, the city could see 18 to 30 inches. That gives the storm a legitimate chance of rivaling or exceeding the great Knickerbocker Snowstorm of 1922, which delivered 28 inches to Washington.

Washington’s top 5 snowstorms
1 Jan. 27-29, 1922 28.0in
2 Feb. 12-14, 1899 20.0
3 Feb. 18-19, 1979 18.7
4 Feb. 5-6, 2010 17.8
5 Jan. 7-9, 1996 17.3

Source: the national weather service

Washington’s final snow tally will depend on measurements taken at Reagan National Airport across the Potomac in Virginia. That’s not always ideal to represent Washington’s snowfall, because it’s lower and often a bit warmer than the District.

How about Philly? And New York City?

Much of the focus has been on Washington. But for Philadelphia, this will be close to a top-five snowstorm too. Recent model data suggests that although it’s unlikely to break the record of 30.7 inches set during the blizzard of 1996, there’s a chance it will make a run for the top two or three.

New York City, meanwhile, has been a weather forecaster’s worst nightmare. Remember last winter’s forecasting debacle, when the edge of heavy snow largely missed the city? Well, this storm has had similar characteristics (albeit is geographically different) since it became apparent that it was heading east. It now appears that the “edge” has shifted a little farther north, placing most of the New York metro area within the band of heavier snow.

Current forecasts call for 8 to 12 inches. [Update: As of 4:30 p.m. Friday, the National Weather Service said the city’s total would probably be from 12 to 18 inches.] There will likely be a range across the metro area, with northern sections (Westchester, Connecticut, parts of northern New Jersey) seeing less and southern areas (Central New Jersey, Staten Island) seeing more. For the official measuring station in Central Park, this probably won’t be a top-end snowstorm.

What about Boston?

Counter to last winter, New England will be largely spared the impacts of this storm. The region has earned it, I guess. Drier air and a different storm track (probably fueled in part by our good friend El Niño, adding some oomph to the southern branch of the jet stream) will conspire to mostly shut Boston out of this one and bring more of a “conversational” type snow to New England (though areas close to the coast could deal with strong winds).

The National Weather Service snow forecast as of 11 a.m. EST Friday.

The National Weather Service snow forecast as of 11 a.m. EST Friday.

Ryan Maue / WeatherBell

Will coastal flooding rival that of Hurricane Sandy?

Not exactly. You have to remember, Sandy was a massive hurricane pushing a ton of water toward the East Coast. Although this storm will churn up plenty of water and coastal flooding will be significant (particularly in southern New Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula), this should not be another Sandy. There’s no real comparison between a massive hurricane making landfall and a departing nor’easter.

Nonetheless, this storm has some similarities to storms of the ’90s that produced significant coastal flooding. Cape May, New Jersey, is projected to see water levels hit about 8.5 feet, which would rank in the top 10 on record there.

Meteorologists love technical definitions

One last point. The term “blizzard” comes with a specific definition, and sometimes those of us in the meteorological community are fiercely defensive of it. Three factors are required for a storm to be classified as a blizzard at a particular place, besides falling or blowing snow:

1. Sustained winds or frequent wind gusts of 35 mph or greater.

2. Visibility under a quarter-mile.

3. These conditions must persist for three hours.

This definition is the same whether you have 1 inch or 40 on the ground. This storm will probably meet the criteria in several spots. Regardless, it’s going to snow, and it’s going to be windy, and you’re probably better off enjoying this from your living room if you can.

Matt Lanza is an operational forecast meteorologist in the energy industry in Houston.