To future generations, the Storm of '03 will be known as the one that dumped 16.2 inches of snow on Washington. That's a lot of snow. Still, we can be forgiven for feeling a little, well, cheated. To anyone who looked outside to watch the dog vanish in a sugary drift or the azaleas disappear in a mound of shaving cream, that official tally may seem underwhelming.
Mark Richards doesn't care. As he says, "I don't know how much snow is in your back yard."
What he does know is how much snow is in the most important patch of real estate in Washington, at least as far as meteorological history is concerned: the area at Reagan National Airport where all official National Weather Service measurements are taken.
Richards is the airport's supervisor of weather operations. The main job of his crew of six, who are contract employees for the Federal Aviation Administration, is "aviation weather," helping pilots know what to expect when they take off and land. But each winter they are also the go-to guys when it comes to how much snow really fell on Washington.
"Sometimes we take grief from the TV guys," Richards said. The reason? Their numbers strike some people as a little low.
As airport spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said of the latest storm: "It seems like we had 35,000 inches."
In fact, Gaithersburg measured 21 inches by 1 p.m. yesterday, Chevy Chase 21.2, Great Falls 22 and Frederick 24.5. Many areas received more than the magical two feet that forecasters had been promising, including Dulles International Airport (24.2 inches) and Baltimore-Washington International Airport (26.6 inches). Even some sites within the District measured more than National's 16.2 (Tenleytown: 16.5).
Meteorologists say there are several reasons why National should register less snow than Washington's suburbs. The main one is pretty straightforward: It usually gets less snow than Washington's suburbs, at least the suburbs to the north and west.
"The farther southeast you go, the lower [the snowfall] is," said Michelle Margraf, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Sterling. "That's the nature of the climate."
It's the same climate that makes predicting the weather here such a crapshoot. Washington has mountains on one side and ocean on the other. The mountains to the west hold in cold air, influencing the weather in areas on that side of the city, Margraf said. The Atlantic, on the other hand, is relatively warm, raising the mercury for Washington and its southeastern suburbs.
For proof, just look to the southeast yesterday. Hollywood in St. Mary's County had a piddling 7.5 inches of precipitation, and most of that was sleet, Margraf said.
Official Washington weather statistics date to 1870. Measurements were first taken at 1719 G St. NW by the U.S. Signal Service, precursor to the National Weather Service. The weather observation site was moved in 1889 to 24th and M streets NW. (That's where someone jotted down the details of Washington's biggest recorded storm, the 28 inches that fell in 1922.) National Airport became the official site in 1941.
The method that Richards and his crew use probably would be recognizable to those who performed the task a century ago. "There's no magic way to measure snow," he said. "You stick a ruler in it."
Because of airport construction, the measurement site has moved around a bit since 1941, said Richards, who has worked at National for 23 years. For the last six years, he has used a "pretty good" area about 20 or 30 feet north of the old main terminal.
There, away from any structure that could obscure snowfall or create drifts, the measurers position "snow boards" -- flat, white, wooden boards roughly 2.5 feet square -- onto which the snow falls. Every six hours, whoever is on duty grabs a yardstick-like measuring tool and heads outside. The bright-yellow measuring stick, with distance marked in tenths of an inch, is pushed into the snow, down to the snow board.
More than one reading is taken, especially in storms like this one, where the snow can drift and blow. About 12 to 15 readings were taken every six hours during this storm, Richards said, and the findings were averaged to give accumulation for that period.
After each reading, a new board is placed on top of the snow so the same flakes aren't measured over and over again, and the new total is added to the old.
An airport may seem like an odd place to record weather, since no one actually lives there. But it makes sense to meteorologists. Because of aircraft safety, there's a natural focus on wind and rain and snow. And there are few other places where the National Weather Service can be assured there are people working round-the-clock.
Richards is diplomatic when discussing the dramatic snow levels recorded elsewhere in the area, but he admits thinking that some meteorology buffs may inflate their numbers to get "bragging rights. You know, 'My measurement is bigger than yours.' "
His isn't the only set of data the National Weather Service keeps. Our descendents will be able to re-create this storm by consulting the records kept by an army of Weather Service-trained volunteers that are archived and incorporated into a monthly report.
But his is the official voice. "The one thing we know is this," he said. "When we're going to compare this storm to the storm of '96 or the Presidents Day snowstorm of '79, all the measurements we're comparing were taken at the same place. We're comparing apples and apples."