Between January 6 and January 9, 1996 a massive snowstorm moved up the Atlantic coast of the United States and into the Northeast dumping several feet of snow across several states. Now commonly referred to as the “Blizzard of ’96”, this snowstorm is an example of a classic Northeast snowstorm.
Several things happened in the atmosphere leading up to the storm, during the storm, and after the storm that allowed it to strengthen and become the massive system that it became. Large waves in the jet-stream allowed several surface lows to form in the Gulf of Mexico. A high pressure over the Northern Plains and a second high pressure over the New York-Canada border brought cold, arctic air into the region. Several low pressures formed, dissipated, and then reformed prior to the event, eventually forming one strong low pressure center. As the system moved up the coast, abundant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Stream, and the Atlantic Ocean allowed the low pressure to strengthen and bring several feet of frozen precipitation into the region over the course of 3 days. The storm is considered a classic Nor’easter because of its formation at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and its track up along the Atlantic Coast.
January 6, 1996
A low pressure had formed over Louisiana and an inverted trough extended from that low northeast into West Virginia. A warm front formed from the low in an easterly direction separating air from the Gulf of Mexico over the continent. High pressure remained over most of the United States specifically over the Northern Great Plains and over the border between New York and Canada. This high pressure resulted in extreme cold air. The placement of the high and low pressures caused some cold air damming against the Appalachian Mountains.
January 7, 1996
By the morning of January 7, three low pressures had formed, with one forming along the frontal boundary east of the Virginia, North Carolina border. The high pressure over the plains had weakened slightly and moved south, allowing the low pressure center to slowly start moving up the coast. Snow had started in the Mid-Atlantic region and by the afternoon, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, MD had received several inches with snow beginning to fall in New York City. Snow continued to fall as the storm moved north and because of its slow speed, the snow was able to continue to accumulate.
January 8, 1996
The three pressures had merged and formed one pressure center off the Virginia coast and moved up towards New England. The central pressure at 00z was 900mb. As the storm continued to move north, it brought cold air into the region that had been established previously by the high pressures a few days before. The system also brought a large amount of moisture from the Atlantic. Combining the cold air and the moisture, the storm was able to deposit large amounts of snow across the region, mostly during the night time hours between the 7th and 8th of January. By the end of the day, the high pressure from the Northern Plains on January 6 had moved significantly south and the system had moved out of the region and into the Atlantic leaving behind very cold temperatures and several feet of snow from Virginia to Massachusetts.
After the snow from this storm, a second system moved through the area a few days later giving the region another 4-6 inches of snow. The week after that, temperatures warmed up and melted alot of the snow in a very short time. Widespread flooding occurred and killed more than two dozen people. In addition to flooding, a third system moved through the area and with the warmer temperatures present, the system added another 2-3 inches of rain, increasing the already disastrous flooding.
January 9, 1996
The system had moved completely out of the region leaving behind an immense amount of snow on the ground across the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.
After the snow from this storm, an “Alberta Clipper” system moved through the Washington DC metropolitan area giving that area another 3-5 inches or so. Plows that had moved on from clearing main roads to secondary streets had to go back to plow the main streets again. second system moved through the area a few days later giving the region another 4-6 inches of snow. By the end of the week, January 12, 1996, a third snow system moved through the region dropping another 4-6 inches in most areas.
When the week was over, the Mid-Atlantic and New England states were covered in over 2 feet of snow and in some places, close to 3 feet or more.
The following week, temperatures warmed up and melted a lot of the snow in a very short time. Widespread flooding occurred and killed more than two dozen people. In addition to flooding, a fourth system moved through the area and with the warmer temperatures present, that system added another 2-3 inches of rain, increasing the already disastrous flooding.
Throughout the event, sounding data continuously supported a large amount of precipitation. Attached here are links to several stations in the region and their sounding data throughout the entire storm.
RNK Blacksburg, VA Sounding
01/05/1996 – 01/09/1996
IAD Sterling, VA Sounding
01/05/1996 – 01/09/1996
PIT Pittsburgh, PA Sounding
01/05/1996 – 01/09/1996
OKX Upton, NY Sounding
01/05/1996 – 01/09/1996
The storm affected 21 states in some way from South Carolina to Maine and from Indiana and Kentucky to the Atlantic Ocean. Using satellite imaging, you can see that the storm covered an area from the Gulf of Mexico up to the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.
Maximum Snowfall: Pocahontas County, West Virginia
Damage: $3 Billion USD
Casualties: 154 fatalities during the main event
33 fatalities caused by flooding after the storm
Snowfall totals for a few selected cities:
Pocahontas County, WV –48.0″
Philadelphia, PA –30.7″
Pittsburgh, PA –9.6″
Allentown, PA –25.9″
Baltimore, MD –22.5″
Frostburg, MD –32.0″
Boston, MA –18.2″
Hartford, CT –18.2″
Bridgeport, CT –16.0″
Central Park, NYC, NY –20.2″
Providence, RI –24.0″
Boone, NC –26.0″
Princeton, NJ –18.0″
New Brunswick, NJ –22.6″
Trenton, NJ –24.2″
Newark, NJ –27.8″
Moorestown, NJ –30.0″
Edison, NJ –32.0″
A complete list of recorded snowfall totals can be found here:
Recorded Snowfall Totals – Blizzard of 1996
Record setting snowfall occurred in many of these cities during this storm.
In Philadelphia, the snow was coming down so fast and in such large amounts that instead of plowing the snow off of the streets, it was being shoveled into dump trucks and dumped into the Delaware River, restricting the natural flow of the river.
Although the storm is called a blizzard, only one observation location actually experienced blizzard conditions. That location was the Trenton-Mercer Airport.
The National Weather Service has set conditions to be met in order to be considered a blizzard:
-Frequent wind gusts of 35 MPH or greater
-Visibility reduced to below 0.25 miles caused by falling or blowing snow
-Criteria must be sustained for a minimum of 3 consecutive hours
Although many places experienced these conditions, they did not experience them for the required 3 consecutive hours to be classified as a blizzard.
This storm was 1 of only 2 storms in the history of recorded storms have been classified as a ‘5’ or ‘Extreme’ on the NESIS scale.
-The other storm to be classified this extreme was the 1993 “Storm of the Century”
A ‘State of Emergency’ was called in almost every state from Virginia to Massachusetts during the storm. Almost all airports were closed from Reagan, Dulles, and BWI to LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK airports.
Schools also closed throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and in most places, students were off of school for a week because of the large amount of snow that the storm brought.
NEWS ARTICLES ON THE STORM:
Skywarn Newsletter detailing the snowstorm: An Analysis of the Blizzard of 1996