From January 6-8, 1996, one of the most extreme East Coast snowstorms on record crippled the East Coast, from Richmond to Boston. It is one of only two snowstorms, along with the Blizzard of March 1993, to be rated a “5” on the 0-5 Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale.
Officially, 17.1 inches of snow fell in Washington, D.C. (as measured at Reagan National Airport) , which ranks as the fifth most on record. Dulles Airport and Baltimore (as measured at BWI Airport) tallied 24.6 and 26.6 inches, respectively, their second biggest snowstorm.
Although the storm mostly occurred over a weekend, schools and businesses were shut down for much of the following week, when even more snow fell over the area.
The Blizzard of 1996 in the Washington area is best remembered for the following:
1) Historic snowfall amounts which measured up to two feet in Washington’s immediate suburbs and up to three feet in the mountains to the west.
2) A prolonged dry slot in the middle of the storm which prompted some area forecasters to call the storm over just hours before intense snow bands moved into town from the east, accompanied by 40 mph winds, white-out conditions, and thunder and lightning.
3) A rapid snow melt a week after the storm which caused historic flooding on the Potomac River.
Below are a few photos, maps, and more discussion about the blizzard.
Without much Internet-based weather information available in 1996, all eyes turned to the local TV stations and the Weather Channel for continuous weather updates. Bob Ryan, Doug Hill, Topper Shutt, and Sue Palka were the most popular people in Washington. Their storm updates were broadcast frequently during the newcasts and between programming. The general forecast was for 16 to 24 inches of snow. Sue Palka boldly mentioned on-air that the storm could rival the Knickerbocker Snowstorm.
A mid-storm dry slot and closing burst
The storm began on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 6, with very cold temperatures and steady, overrunning snow that arrived in Washington many hours before the storm fully developed. As the snowstorm began intensifying and moving up the East Coast, very heavy snowfall moved into the region.
As the storm reached its maximum snowfall rate with visibility falling under a quarter of a mile, the snow tapered off suddenly. On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 7, the snow decreased in intensity and even changed to light sleet for a time as a pocket of mild air aloft entered the region. The dry slot had unexpectedly pushed over the Washington area and the storm appeared over.
The lull in snow lasted for hours and radar loops did not look encouraging for more snow moving into the area. Some of the local TV meteorologists posted final snowfall amounts on their weathercast which generally ranged between 12 to 15 inches across the Washington area.
But the storm was not over. Intense snow bands developed to the east and northeast of Washington and then spun across the area in the overnight hours. Whiteout conditions, blowing and drifting snow, and thunder and lightning accompanied the snow bands. Final snow fall amounts in the Washington area ranged from 17 to 25 inches after the last snowflakes fell on the morning of Monday, Jan. 8.
If the dry slot had stalled to the south of Washington as originally forecast, and if the heavy snow had continued during the middle of the storm, the total snowfall amounts in the Washington area would have been astounding. The Knickerbocker Snowstorm’s record could have been broken. Thus, the dry slot saved Washington from being ridiculously buried by snow.
Record snow melt and flooding
A cold week of weather with two more snowstorms followed the Blizzard of ’96. An unexpected clipper dropped 1 to 5 inches of snow on the area several days after blizzard which was followed by another 3 to 12 inches of snow a few days later. The snow pack across the area was deep.
Then came the warm up!
A potent rainstorm with temperatures in the 60s, strong southerly winds, and high dew points moved quickly through the Mid-Atlantic region. The rainstorm and its mild winds melted the snowpack overnight. The snow melt was dramatic and quite unusual with how fast two feet of snow vanished in a matter of hours. Major flooding ensued.
The Potomac River rose quickly and pushed over its banks, even at Great Falls and Mather Gorge. The flood water pushed up the flood pole that is maintained by the National Park Service at Great Falls. The flood of ’96 wasn’t the Potomac’s largest flood but it’s ranked in the top 10 and it’s number six on the list of floods at Great Falls.
The Blizzard of ’96 will always be one of the great benchmark snowstorms for the Washington area, along with Snowmageddon, the Presidents’ Day snowstorm, and the Knickerbocker Snowstorm. How long will it take before we see another storm of this magnitude? We’ll have to wait and see…