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Biggest snow of the season … so why wasn't it more disruptive?

While it was the biggest snow of the year, likely a record-breaker for Philadelphia, it was less disruptive than its March predecessors. Here's why.

People walk through Rittenhouse Square as snow falls on Wednesday.
People walk through Rittenhouse Square as snow falls on Wednesday.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The potentially historic winter storm was performing unexceptionally — maybe a crunchy inch or so of semi-frozen leftovers on the ground Wednesday morning. But when Joe Miketta walked into the Wawa near his work, he noticed instantly that something was missing: Customers.

Miketta likely was far more pleased by this development than the store manager or Wawa corporate headquarters. Miketta is the acting chief of the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, and he viewed the Wawa as a barometer to measure how seriously people were taking the forecast, which still was calling for up to a foot or more of snow from the fourth significant coastal storm in less than three weeks.

In the end, the forecast was worth heeding. A foot and more landed in some places in the city's neighboring counties on both sides of the river, and Philadlephia had broken an 86-year-old record for a March 21 snowfall, nudging this incredible weather month near the top for March snow.

 >>READ MORE: The morning after the storm in the Philly area: The latest updates

High temperatures on Thursday should crest past 40 — still way below normal — and despite clouds the March sun should erase some of snow cover. Philadelphia public and archdiocesan schools will try to exploit that melting power by opening two hours late, and a rash of late openings and closings was likely.

There will be plenty to melt.

Heavy snow and near-whiteout conditions at times ruled Wednesday afternoon. Driving conditions predictably deteriorated, and among the accidents was a police-car spinout on I-95 in South Philadelphia in which two officers were injured. SEPTA detoured several bus routes and put Regional Rail on a Saturday schedule. More than 700 flights into and out of Philadelphia International Airport were canceled.

But while the storm might have outperformed its March predecessors for snow totals and aesthetics, for a variety of fortuitous circumstances — timing of the winds, the weight of the snow, and perhaps even the earlier nor'easters — it did not set new standards for ferocity and disruption.

A big factor was the forecast.

The storm could not be credited for shutting down the region; Miketta, his colleagues, and other meteorologists had taken care of that. In advance of the storm, schools announced they would close, as did government offices. For a weekday, traffic was stunningly light during the peak commuting periods.

Miketta said he was all for the closing of the schools and the emptiness of the streets and his Wawa. "We think that's all good stuff," he said. "That's a sign that people are staying home."

>>READ MORE: Spring snow a rarity in Philly, but it has been worse, much worse

By late afternoon, only "scattered" power outages had occurred, according to Peco communications chief Doug Oliver, and PSE&G reported just 600.

Why weren't there more? When the strongest gusts, past 30 mph, occurred during the morning, the trees weren't weighted down with snow. During the day, thanks to cold air in the upper atmosphere, the snow became fluffier, and thus less water-laden and lighter, said Dave Dombek, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. The large, aggregated flakes seemed not to fall so much as float gently.

And Miketta believes the earlier storms reduced the vulnerable wood population by providing a tree-pruning service; they "brought down a lot of the more low-hanging fruit."

Although storms never replicate, the latest nor'easter did share some characteristics with the other ones. In addition to generating those espresso-saucer flakes, it favored areas north and west of the city with the most generous accumulations.

As of Wednesday morning, officially 23.1 inches of snow had been measured at Philadelphia International Airport for the period from October until Wednesday, close to the seasonal average. However, a total of more than 40 inches was reported by a weather service observer in Wayne, and totals in the 30s were common from an area near Philadelphia to Allentown along the "fall line," the subtly elevated area to the north and west of the city.

Miketta said that has been a leitmotif of the winter, a function of geography and how the storms have been positioned.

 >>READ MORE: Top 5 March snowstorms in Philadelphia history

The region's seasonal totals received a decent bump from the storm. Officially 7.6 inches was at Philadelphia International Airport from this storm, a high for the season. The 6.7 that fell Wednesday buried the 4.7 measured on March 21, 1932. The 15.2 for the month ties this March for the No. 2 spot.

And as a bonus for those who have read this far, be informed that no new storms are on the horizon — the run of nor'easters might be over. That said, some researchers believe that such storms could become more common. A recent study by a Rutgers University expert found that over the long term, warmer Arctic temperatures could increase the southward spillage of icy air, perhaps setting off more coastal storms.

In the short term, it might even get warm eventually around here. Wednesday marked the 16th consecutive day of below-normal temperatures in Philadelphia, and the forecast for the next several days and the government's two-week outlook notwithstanding, that's bound to change.

"If you just get back to normal, it's going to feel great," said Dombek. Normal would be highs in the mid-50s; the forecasts have them in the low 40s the next few days. "If it goes above normal … wow!"

Staff writers Tom Avril, Michael Boren, and Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.