The GOES IR satellite image from Jan. 7, 1996. (NOAA/Washington Weather)

In early January 1996, at the tail-end of the second government shutdown in as many months due to a budget stalemate (sound familiar?), the federal government was forced to extend the 22-day shutdown for another week - this time because of a massive East Coast blizzard. It was known as “The Great Furlough Storm” and ultimately as the “Blizzard of ’96,” and began in the D.C. area late Saturday evening, Jan. 6, 1996.

Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini, two of the most highly respected experts on Northeast snowstorms, analyzed almost every such storm from 1950 to 2003 (and many dating back to the Colonial era) in their monographs, Northeast Snowstorms, Volumes I and II. They found two common criteria, both of which were met by the Blizzard of ’96.

The authors’ work repeatedly demonstrated that, among other things, the most important requirements for truly historic and widespread Atlantic Coast blizzards were: (1) a developing low-pressure system somewhere in the Southeast U.S., and (2) arctic high pressure anchored north of New York State or New England, but not sliding eastward toward the Maritimes, which would provide a more easterly (warmer) flow.

Weather map of 1/7/96, 7 a.m. EST (NOAA)

In the case of the 1996 storm, a developing low-pressure system evolved, as many have before and since, from a complex series of low centers originating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Midwest. Basically, the Midwest low dissipated and the Gulf low entered Georgia, where it formed the typical coastal front which extended northeast toward Cape Hatteras. It was there where the primary storm formed and rapidly deepened, but moved only slowly north-northeastward, just off the coastline - a classic trajectory for a Northeast snowstorm.

But without the second ingredient - an arctic high pressure system that was, in fact, anchored to the north of New York State feeding very cold air southward along the Atlantic coastal plain (known as cold-air damming) - the storm would not have reached historic proportions. Indicative of the intensity of this cold air mass? Sub-zero readings in most of New England (initially), and teens south to Virginia.

Aside from the potent low-pressure center and frigid air mass, other factors of a more technical nature, of course, contributed to the unusual nature of this storm. But I’ll leave those to our winter weather expert, Wes Junker, to perhaps discuss at some future date.

As Northeast snowstorms go, this one was truly massive, extending from the lower Ohio Valley through western North Carolina to southern New England. The only portions of the Northeast to escape the onslaught were northern and western New York and the upper reaches of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In the hardest hit areas from central Virginia to New York City, snowfall amounts ranged from heavy to extreme. Examples:

* Roanoke, VA- 22.5,” (all-time 24-hour accumulation record)
* Big Meadows, VA- 47.0”
* Lynchburg, VA- 22.0,” (all-time 24-hour accumulation record)
* Washington, DC (Dulles)- 24.5”
* Baltimore, MD- 22.0”
* Philadelphia, PA- 30.7,” (highest on record)
* Newark, NJ- 27.8”
* New York City (Central Park)- 20.2”

Blizzard of ’96 snow totals (Penn State’s Weather World)

At the storm’s peak, an intrusion of warmer air aloft managed to change the snow over to sleet for some time in the immediate Washington area and to the southeast, but even so, Reagan National Airport (apparently) managed to accumulate 17.1” of snow.

I say apparently because this is where the measurement gets murky. As the storm was winding down on Monday Jan. 8, the winds picked up and there was a changeover back to snow, allowing considerable blowing and drifting, which created huge 4-6 foot drifts in places. This in itself would have made an accurate snowfall measurement difficult, but the very next day, Jan. 9, an unexpected “Alberta Clipper” unloaded another 3-5 inches of snow on the D.C./Baltimore region, an unusually heavy amount for this type of system.

Despite the relatively high marks earned by the National Weather Service (NWS) for its forecast of the “main event,” the NWS came under criticism for its clipper forecast. Just when road crews were making substantial progress digging out from the first storm, they were hit hard again.

Ever since that snowy January, whereas the NWS continues to advertise a storm total of 17.1” for the “Blizzard of ‘96,” others have occasionally included the additional snow from the “clipper” in the overall storm total.

To round out the month of January 1996, another 4-6” of snow blanketed the region a few days later, followed by devastating and costly flooding later in the month in much of the mid-Atlantic. “In just over one day, two to five inches of water from snowmelt combined with two to five inches of rainfall, resulting in widespread major flooding throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” according to the USGS.

Following are some additional statistics on what Kocin and Uccellini called “one of the most significant snowstorms of the 20th century, since many of the largest population centers within the northeast urban corridor were buried.”

* Death toll: 60
* Property damage: $585 million in insured losses, including that resulting from flooding
* Lowest barometric pressure: 28.94 inches (location unknown)

It was also the snowiest winter of the 20th century for much of the area from Virginia to southern New England.

Currently, the Blizzard of ‘96 ranks as the fifth biggest D.C. snowstorm, as measured at Reagan National. But at Baltimore’s official measuring station, BWI Airport, only about 35 miles to the north, the storm is considered No.2, with about 9” more snow.

Similarly, seven years later, while the blizzard of Feb. 15-18, 2003, officially dumped 16.7”of snow on the nation’s capital, Baltimore measured almost 1 foot more. Is there a message here about the D.C. measuring station?

For more on the Blizzard of ’96, see Kevin Ambrose’s pictorial essay from January 2011.