Quite possibly, never before or since has so much snow fallen upon so many.
Twenty-five years ago on Jan. 7 and 8, Philadelphia, with an unprecedented (and controversial) 30.7 inches of snow, was at the epicenter of one of the most extreme weather events in the nation’s history.
From Virginia to Massachusetts, 20 inches or more accumulated in areas inhabited by 39.8 million people. Big snows have been winter perennials in Eastern population, but no other storm in an analysis dating to 1950 had affected that many residents with such staggering amounts of snow.
“This was the storm for the ages, no question about it,” said Louis W. Uccellini, head of the National Weather Service and coauthor of what is considered the seminal treatise on winter storms, and of that snow-population study. Nor has any snow since quite measured up to its impact in the analysis by Uccellini and meteorologist Paul J. Kocin.
All day Sunday, Jan. 7, 1996, it was as though the entire Philadelphia region had vanished behind shrouds of snow crystals frenzied by blinding blizzard winds. By the time the snow shut off on Monday afternoon, Jan. 8, 1996, the region wasn’t paralyzed so much as stunned.
More than 30 emergency vehicles, including 15 firetrucks, were stranded in the streets. Highways were closed on both sides of the river. For the storm’s shutdown powers, the coronavirus would envy it.
The actual snow totals were even more unbelievable than the improbable outcomes the computer models had suggested.
Something like this wasn’t supposed to happen around here, not in early January, not ever. And wasn’t the world getting warmer? Yes, and they might be related, said Uccellini.
“We might have fewer snowstorms,” he said this week, “and we could face the potential of heavier snowstorms.”
As it would turn out, the Blizzard of ‘96 would be part of a new generation of mega-snowstorms in Philadelphia and the Northeast, the kind that would dwarf the snows of yesteryear.
But in the first week of 1996 no one, it seemed, was quite ready to believe it.
Could this really happen?
Computer models consistently predicted a major winter coastal storm for the first weekend in January 1996 — and predictably bickered as the event drew closer. At midweek, they had Philadelphia barely on the northern edge of the heavy snow, recalled Uccellini, who at the time was chief of the weather service’s Office of Meteorology. On Thursday, the Mount Holly office issued a “Winter Storm Outlook.”
It wasn’t until Friday that the computers nudged the heavy snow line through Philadelphia, and by Saturday morning they were seeing 18 to 24 inches, Uccellini said, adding: “That’s when the lid came off.” Boston didn’t become a forecast target until Saturday evening, he said.
Some meteorologists were reluctant to go with such bold accumulation forecasts, Uccellini recalled. For one thing, early January isn’t the harvest season for snow in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Typically, the heaviest snows hold off until later in January and early February.
In Philadelphia, for example, the standing record for snowfall on Jan. 7 had been 5 inches, set in 1991. More than five times that amount fell on Jan. 7, 1996.
More significantly, snowfalls up to 2 feet were on the rare side of unusual in the I-95 cities, period. The March 1993 blizzard crushed the interior Northeast with profound snows, but totals on the coastal Plain generally were a foot or less.
In fact, before 1996, Philadelphia never had a 2-foot snowfall. The record was 21.3 inches set on Feb. 11-12, 1983, only the second 20-plus snowfall in records dating to the winter of 1884-85.
Forecasters, however, put their skepticism aside, and the likes of AccuWeather Inc. and the Weather Channel went with predictions of 1 to 2 feet.
The snow started between 2 and 3 a.m., recalled Tony Gigi, who was the midnight-shift forecaster at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly that Sunday morning and who posted the “blizzard” warning. Visibility dropped to a mile at 4 a.m., and was down to a blizzard-level quarter mile at 10 a.m.
Gigi somehow made it home to Mount Laurel after his shift, only to be called into work Monday to relieve stranded, exhausted colleagues who pleaded, “We need someone who’s awake.” He made it back to the office, after his Chevy Blazer was extricated from a snowdrift on a Jersey jughandle.
The final totals from the observers Monday were staggering.
And like the forecasts, it was all hard to believe.
A measure of skepticism
That 30.7 official total — as reported at the official observation station at Philadelphia International Airport — turned out to be quite controversial, requiring a recount, a federal investigation, and a verdict that took four years to render. The skepticism wasn’t founded solely on the utter improbability.
The snow wasn’t measured: The total was estimated with a formula using the melted-liquid content of the snow with the air temperature, which was in the teens and 20s while the snow was falling.
The new automated observing system the weather service had installed in stations around the country could do just about everything but measure snow.
The government commissioned then Franklin Institute meteorologist Jon Nese and New Jersey state climatologist Dave Robinson, a Rutgers University professor, to vet the total. They concluded that since similar totals were reported nearby, including 33 inches in Cherry Hill, the evidence was insufficient to overturn the 30.7 figure, and it still stands.
These days, by the way, humans do the measuring.
Since 1996, forecasters have been far less gun-shy in predicting prodigious amounts of snow. In a few notable cases, those predictions have been a source of prodigious embarrassment. However, in others they have been very much on the money.
» READ MORE: Top 10 snowstorms in Philadelphia history
At 28.5 inches, the snows of Feb. 5-6, 2010, not only nearly toppled the 1996 record, it was followed a few days later by another snowfall that left an official 16 inches in Philly and 2-plus feet elsewhere in the region.
And the 23.2 inches of Dec. 19-20, 2009, and the 22.4 of Jan. 23-24, 2016, weren’t exactly flurries.
Officially 18.7 inches were measured in Philly on Feb. 16-17, 2003, and higher amounts were reported elsewhere.
Half of the top 10 snowfalls in Philadelphia in 135 years of record-keeping have occurred in the last 25 years.
Uccellini said the recent mega-snows could well be evidence supporting the hypothesis that a warming world would mean wetter storms; warmer air can hold more water.
But he added a cautionary note.
“It’s rather a small sample size,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful, but there is a trend line.”