Washington Monument casts a shadow after Snowzilla, Jan 24, 2016. View is from NASA's Landsat 8 satellite in space. (NASA)
Washington Monument casts a shadow after Snowzilla, Jan 24, 2016. View is from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite in space. (NASA)

The Blizzard of 2016 — named “Snowzilla” in Washington, D.C. — was one for the record books.

An incredible 29.2 inches of snow fell at BWI, making it the greatest snowstorm on record there. Dulles International measured 29.3 inches, which came in just behind Snowmageddon’s 2010 total of 32.4 inches.

In New York City, JFK and LaGuardia airports recorded 30.5 and 27.9 inches of snow — both the highest snowfall totals on record in a single storm. Central Park missed its all-time record by a mere one-tenth of an inch.

As the storm unfolded, stunning meteorological images sprang forth left and right.

The model runs


The Blizzard of 2016 as seen by the GFS weather model. (TropicalTidbits.com, modified by author)

I could go on and on about the model runs. Choosing one was too hard, so I compiled the initial precipitation panel from each GFS model run as the storm unfolded.

The model run basically illustrates exactly what happened in the storm. It was a great forecast. Out of this world if you are a weather watcher, to say the least. The storm was picked up on by modeling very strongly and quite early.

Jaw dropping mid-levels


500mb vorticity reanalysis. (Weatherbell.com, modified by author)

We tend to spend most of our time thinking about the weather at the ground for obvious reasons. But the true drivers of weather are up above our heads by a few to many thousand feet.

Around 18,000 feet, the primary mechanism for creating big storms is found at the 500 millibar pressure level. For Snowzilla, the scenario that that kept showing up in the model forecasts was perfect for a Mid-Atlantic snow dump. In the end, that’s pretty much what happened.

So. Much. Precipitation.


NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement system captured the blizzard as it was attacking the northeast. (NASA)

NASA’s GPM satellite system uses several advanced techniques to analyze precipitation rates in storms. The forecasts called for liquid equivalent precipitation unlike typically seen in a winter storm. That signal alone argued for massive snowfall totals.

In a timely pass over the blizzard, GPM caught these extreme precipitation rates offshore as they were headed in to clobber the megalopolis.

A ton of snow was forecast, then it fell


Model snowfall forecasts in the lead-up to the snowstorm. Most recent first. (Weatherbell.com, modified by author)

Back to models, briefly. Look at all that snow. Forecasters don’t frequently see such a strong signal across the board from weather data as we saw for Snowzilla.

In the case of this storm, the devil was mainly in the details. Above, 4.5 days of snowfall forecasts from our friends in Europe. The last run before the storm is first, and it goes backward in time from left to right in each row.

Not just D.C. under the gun…


(weatherbell.com, modified by Capital Weather Gang)

This winter storm had more names than usual — Snowzilla, Jonas, Blizzard of 2016, something else? — probably because it hit such a massive population. Over 50 million people were impacted in some way, with a large portion of that population affected quite severely.

In common parlance it seems easy to remember as the Blizzard of 2016. Unless there’s another, bigger blizzard this year?

In D.C., it was certainly a Snowzilla. Proper for this “Godzilla” El Niño going on.

The satellite presentation was textbook


Infrared satellite loop showing the life of the Blizzard of 2016. (NASA)

Infrared satellite is often the go-to if you want to observe a storm life cycle from start to finish. This one had it all. Severe weather in the South, tons of rain, and of course the whole blizzard aspect. Look at the convection (think thunderstorms, even without thunder) everywhere! Blizzard perfection.

Convection at night


Blizzard by night. Note the convective clouds pushing into the D.C. area from the southeast. (NASA)

The Blizzard of 2016 was a convective beast. Under the moonlight, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite snapped the amazing picture above at around 2:15 a.m. on January 23. If you were among “team stay up all night,” you know this is when the storm went into hyperdrive and convective bands, some with lightning and thunder, moved through.

The details are in the vapor


Water vapor satellite imagery of the life of Snowzilla. (University of Wisconsin Madison via Julian Diamond, modified by author).

Water vapor loops are particularly useful when it comes to watching snowstorms. Big storms like Snowzilla tap immense energy from the mid-and-upper atmosphere. They also feature copious moisture. In this case, the southern jet stream connection typical of El Niño is quite apparent. So is that big old dry slot — I know, it hurts if it finds you and you’re a snow-lover. Just remember dry air feeds the thunder snow.

Classic track = classic radar


Radar loop for the Blizzard of 2016. (Imagery: NCDC – loop created by author)

Snowzilla was truly a classic, as was its radar presentation. The track, traced above by a regional radar loop of the storm, was exactly what you see illustrated in the textbooks for big Washington, D.C., snowstorms. Moisture roared in from the south early, then collapsed back across from the north. That’s how the big snows happen in the Mid-Atlantic.

A legit blizzard


Hourly observations near blizzard criteria. (Greg Carbin)

It’s hard to verify blizzard warnings. In the megastorms of 2009-10, D.C. was put under blizzard warnings for all three events. In the two biggest, the city didn’t quite reach criteria. During the Blizzard of 2016, warnings verified all across the northeast.

Washington saw three hours of blizzard conditions. The epicenter of blizzard conditions tended to center around New York City and into Long Island. JFK Airport managed nine hours of blizzarding!

That’s a lot of snow


Snow totals from the Blizzard of 2016. (NWS Eastern Region)

A snowstorm that will be remembered among the greats, the main thing that might hold Snowzilla back on the Northeast snowstorm scale (NESIS) is its paltry amounts up toward Boston. Otherwise, an all around crushing. D.C. had at least its fourth biggest snowstorm ever, Baltimore its top one ever, and New York City among others snagged first as well.

Back to space


Snow cover across the eastern United States following the Blizzard of 2016. (UW-Madison CIMSS)

What a satellite image. The footprint of the storm was a big one, even compared to the other greats of all time. There’s detail from out there as well, like a shadow cast by the Washington Monument onto the freshly fallen snow (see the top image in this post!). We’ll all long remember this blizzard, no matter how we refer to it.