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Flakes, fender-benders fill region's roadways

Some areas got three inches or more. Rush-hour traffic wasn't disrupted.

While the snow wasn't deep for humans, it was more than ankle deep for Butterscotch. Denise Pody, owner of Flowers Etc. in Northern Liberties, took a break to take her pug for a walk.
While the snow wasn't deep for humans, it was more than ankle deep for Butterscotch. Denise Pody, owner of Flowers Etc. in Northern Liberties, took a break to take her pug for a walk.Read moreRON TARVER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

No one was calling it the "Blizzard of '07," but Philadelphia recorded its first measurable snow of the season yesterday.

Flakes that filtered into the area in late morning built to a slow but steady fall by afternoon and into the evening. By 8:30, reported totals ranged from 3.5 inches in Glassboro, Gloucester County, and 3 inches in Wilmington, to at least an inch in most of the Philadelphia area, including 1.3 inches at Philadelphia International Airport.

There were no deaths, few injuries, and little reported trauma. Icy roads, however, were causing the fender-benders to pile up, area police reported.

"Kinda crazy out there," said a state police dispatcher in Media.

By 9, snowfall in Philadelphia was "just about wrapped up," said Gary Szatkowski, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly. Heavy snow still was falling in New Jersey's Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May Counties, he said, with accumulations exceeding 3 inches.

Not only were the serious problems few, but fears that the snow would be timed perfectly to exploit its modest disruptive potential for rush hour turned out to be unfounded.

Roads remained merely wet in daytime, thanks to the faint sun behind the clouds. After sunset, hefty doses of salt helped prevent a traffic nightmare.

"Traffic seems to be moving well," said Eugene Blaum, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. PennDot had 350 trucks at the ready, and the New Jersey Department of Transportation dispatched 80 trucks to salt highways in the Garden State.

SEPTA reported no major problems.

The flakes were the product of a "clipper" storm that moved rapidly from the far Northern Plains to the Atlantic Coast. Such storms often dry out by the time they arrive here, but this one had a bit more juice than most.

It wasn't much, but if various weather experts are right, it might have been a preview of the winter, which begins officially just after midnight on Dec. 22.

They hold that the winter will be characterized by "nuisance" storms rather than those paralyzing nor'easters.

A moderate to strong La Niña, a cooling of the surface waters, is "roaring" in the equatorial Pacific, says Florida State University's James J. O'Brien, and that will affect storm tracks for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

La Niña disrupts the upper-air jet-stream winds from the west that move storms. Jet streams form along boundaries of warm and cold air, and that mass of cool water in the Pacific forces those boundaries to the north, says O'Brien, a professor emeritus whose expertise is La Niña and its opposite, El Niño, which is a warming of the waters.

During La Niña, the winds tend to blow from Hawaii to Seattle and ultimately pass north of Philadelphia. In addition, a ridge of high pressure tends to build along the East Coast, and that heavier air suppresses coastal storms, the ones that produce the hefty snows along the I-95 corridor.

Snow-lovers need not despair, however. While big storms have been scarce in moderate and strong La Niña years, it has snowed some in those years, according to Anthony Gigi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. Overall, average snowfall was just over 15 inches, which is within 75 percent of normal.

Air-pressure patterns in the far North Atlantic can trump the Pacific influence, says Gerry Bell, a seasonal forecaster with the government's Climate Prediction Center. High pressures near Greenland can drive cold air into the Northeast and set up a snowier storm track.

And winter fans also might find encouragement in the hurricane season. The consensus was that La Niña would enhance it.

The season got off to a strong start, but it fizzled at the end of September, and the government did not declare a single major hurricane disaster the entire season.