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Better watch out: Snow looks to reign

Christmas 2009 may or may not be a white one, but the weekend before the holiday almost certainly is going to profoundly white. Maybe even historically white.

Equipment operator Andre Coles helps get a plow hooked up to a truck Friday at a PennDOT station in North Philadelphia.. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Equipment operator Andre Coles helps get a plow hooked up to a truck Friday at a PennDOT station in North Philadelphia.. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

Christmas 2009 may or may not be a white one, but the weekend before the holiday almost certainly is going to profoundly white. Maybe even historically white.

Yet another in a sequence of beach-ripping coastal storms is expected to leave 7 to 15 inches of snow across the region, with blizzard conditions possible near the Shore, where the storm's effects might be the worst.

Unless the expertise of the entire meteorological community has suffered some kind of meltdown, the views outside windows all over the mid-Atlantic region today should resemble shredded coconut swirling in a Cuisinart. The snow should stop by midnight.

"This could wind up being a historic event," said Louis Uccellini, one of the nation's leading winter-storm experts and director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction outside Washington. The nation's capital could be buried by two feet of frozen whiteness, significantly more than its average for an entire season.

In Philadelphia, where big December snows are unusual, it could be the heftiest snowfall in four winters and the biggest December snow since 2000.

Yesterday on both sides of the Delaware River, an armada of plows, scrapers, and trucks loaded with salt was poised to take on nature's wintry invasion. Road crews were spraying brine solutions - a mixture of easily dissolvable solar salt and water - to lay a foundation for a long siege of salting and plowing.

For retailers who could lose a critical day of their busiest season of the year, the timing couldn't be worse.

But the region's malls said they would make no decisions on closings until they saw the white of the flakes. "I think the last time the mall closed, feet were involved," said marketing manager Patricia Gillett of Oxford Valley Mall in Bucks County.

According to the forecast, the mall folks will see white before they unlock the gates. Snow should spread across the region during the early hours and get seriously cranking during the late afternoon.

"It looks really impressive," said Henry Margusity, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., the commercial service in State College, Pa.

Winter storm warnings were in effect for the entire region and as far north as metropolitan New York. The storm could have winds up to 25 m.p.h. in Philadelphia but hammer the Shore with 35 to 45 m.p.h. gales, said National Weather Service meteorologist Greg Heavener. If those peak winds come directly from the east, he said, the already-dune-depleted beaches are in for another significant pounding. No matter what, he said, some erosion is a certainty.

The storm, which formed over the Gulf of Mexico, is expected to be off the Carolina coast today and become a full-blown nor'easter.

Last month, a coastal storm erased significant beachfront and dunes from the Jersey Shore. They don't call them "nor'easters" for nothing: A buoy off Delaware measured 84 consecutive hours of wind from the northeast during that storm.

Winds circulate counterclockwise around storm centers, so areas to the north of the center get winds from the east; areas to the northwest, winds from the northeast. Heavener said this one could take a path that would favor more easterly winds at the beaches.

Uccellini said the storm should get an extra kick from the Gulf Stream, the massive, warm Atlantic current that passes off the Carolina coast on its way to Europe. The strong easterly gales would tap the warm, moist air overlying the current and drive it landward.

He said the storm appears to bear some similarities to the blizzard of Feb. 11-12, 1983, and that the air pattern is reminiscent to that of Dec. 11-12, 1960. The 1983 storm left 21.3 inches; 1960's, 14.6,

Snows of six or more inches have occurred in Philadelphia only about once a decade in December, and not since 2002.

Philadelphia's heavy snows usually come from coastal storms, but if they become too powerful, they tend to draw in warm air from the ocean, where surface temperatures are still in the 40s. That turns the snow to rain.

But in this case, Uccellini said, the cold air is firmly entrenched and the precipitation should fall as all snow.

Evidently, most folks were taking the forecasters at their words. One of the first of many expected cancellations was the annual Christmas party at the Camden Rescue Mission, which was planning to provide toys to 6,000 children today.

Ironically, the Rev. Al Stewart, mission pastor, had been considering postponing the party - not for snow, but for lack of toys. However, he decided to go ahead after getting a flood of donations. The snow forecast, however, trumped the flood, he has rescheduled the event for Thursday, Christmas Eve.

Odds are that snow still will be around that day. Temperatures won't be getting out of the 30s until at least Friday, with lows in the 20s, so the winter solstice on Monday should play out above a generous cover of white.

As for a white Christmas, another storm is due at the end of the week, but the models are saying it will pass to the west, which would put Philadelphia on the snow-melting side. Heavy snows in 1978 and 1996 disappeared quickly when the region was approached by the warm sides of storms.

If that's the case, the melt material likely will be plentiful.

Said Margusity: "I think you guys are going to get a pretty good snowstorm."

Parking Discount

The Parking Authority will charge a $5 "snow rate" at some Center City garages to help holiday shoppers on the last weekend before Christmas, officials said.

The rate will be good for up to 12 hours at the AutoParks at 16th Street and JFK Boulevard, Fifth and Market Streets, and 10th and Ludlow Streets.

The $5 rate will apply for 24 hours at the Gateway garage at 16th and Vine Streets. The authority will charge $10 for 12 hours at the AutoPark at 10th and Filbert Streets (at the Gallery).