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February 6, 2010

No snow total for BWI

Jim Lee, the meteorologist-in-charge at the NWS forecast office in Sterling, says a problem with snow measurements at BWI during the late departed snowstorm means we will not have an official total, perhaps for several days.

On top of that, he says, it's not yet clear how they will measure the four-day storm in February 2003 that currently holds title as the biggest on record for Baltimore.

One thing Lee says he is confident about is that this storm did beat the 2003 storm, by at least a fraction of an inch.

Here's the deal:Super Bowl Storm

The contractor paid to make snow measurements at BWI for the weather service (the NWS has none of its own personnel there) evidently failed to follow NWS protocols in measuring the snow.

Those rules say the observer must allow snow to fall on an official "snow board" for six hours, then wipe it clear and repeat the procedure every six hours until the snow ends.

The technique is designed to split the difference between measuring all the snow at once (which means the snow will have compacted some from its own the weight), or measuring it more frequently, and perhaps exaggerating the snow depth by eliminating most compaction.

The contractor measured every hour on the hour and added it up. That produced a total of 28.6 inches. He also took a "snow depth" reading, meaning that he measured all the snow at once, after it stopped falling. Because of compaction, that came to 24.7 inches.

Super Bowl Storm"We don't have an observation for every six hours," Lee said.

Sterling is now consulting with headquarters, and with climatologists, to figure out how to make a reasonable estimate of what a six-hour measurement might have been. "We'll have to come up with an official estimate somewhere between the 24.7 inch snow depth and 28.6," Lee said.

But then what should they compare it to? The No. 1 snowstorm currently on Sterling's Top Twenty list is the Feb. 15-18 storm in 2003. The total on the Sterling Web page for that storm was 28.2 inches.

Did the storm that buried my car (left) beat that? It's not clear.

The 28.2-inch measurement on the Sterling Web site notwithstanding, the National Climatic Data Center doesn't recognize four-day storms, Lee said. Besides, the 2003 storm was actually two storms. His office is now focusing on two days of that storm for the official record challenge. That's the total of 24.4 inches that fell on Feb. 16 and 17, 2003.

If that's upheld by the NCDC, both measurements from BWI for the Super Bowl Weekend Storm just ended would beat that mark, so whatever intermediate figure they eventually agree on would as well. And that would make this the biggest two-day storm on record for Baltimore.

Lee like its chances. "I'm feeling pretty comfortable saying we broke a two-day snowfall record in Baltimore," he said.

UPDATE: Preliminarily, the NWS is estimating the storm's two-day BWI total at 24.8 inches, beating the 2003 storm by 0.4 inch.

In the meantime, Sterling's Top Twenty Snowstorms chart was taken off the Website Saturday afternoon. The site still lists the February 2003 storm as the biggest THREE-day storm on record for the city at 26.8 inches. 

The biggest two-day storm, if downtown measurements are included, was in January 1922 - 26.3 inches. 

Stay tuned.

(SUN PHOTOS/Frank Roylance/The WeatherDeck (top)/My poor car (bottom))

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:55 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: By the numbers


As I remember, the 2003 storm was really 2 storms (1 large and 1 small about 12 hours later) that they grouped into one to make it set the record. I do remember a distinct period of no snow, but NWS claimed it was continuous at least somewhere in the state. Either way, I don't need anyone to tell me - this one is bigger.

Spread the word that we're buried in Columbia/Elkridge. I just dug for hours and can just rock the car back and forth. When they plow, the friction will melt the plowing surface. Air will then freeze it. If and when they plow, we have to run out and shovel before it ices over!cause

Who fricking cares who got the most snow or if records were broken !!! Get some some plows down here and GET US OUTTA HERE !!!

Officially, the 2003 storm is on the books as 28.2 inches(instead of the compacted 24.4) - and for some strange reason, this one will be evaluated differently on the compacted depth of 24.8 inches - robbing the state of disaster funds.BWI released an 11:45 am 26.5 in total - only to finalize at 24.8?? FISHY.....this storm should be called the TOTALLY FUZZY MATH STORM

This is hilarious...inthis day and age of GPS satellites, etc. that can pinpoint a gnat's ass, they can't figure out exactly how much snow fell any better than this?

I guess that I'm missing something here. The snow started on Friday at around noon and it ended Saturday at around noon. In my books that makes it a ONE DAY storm. I shoveled a couple of thousand cubic feet of snow today. That's about the same amount that I shoveled back in 2003, but back then it took THREE days. This storm was definitely bigger. If it had lasted three days at this intensity, Baltimore would still be digging out NEXT Saturday. I'm getting too old for this!

Captcha: combat warhol
Impressionist's battle cry?

FR: The NWS measures snow totals from midnight to midnight, so this storm is a two-day deal.

I measured 30 inches in my back yard, and 28 inches in my front yard at 7:16 PM on Feb 6th. That averages 29 inches. If this were done according to the NWS protocol, I have no doubt it would be above 30 inches. I think it safe to say this storm has broken the old record.

Good Morning, Frank. Technically, I understand that the storm started on Friday and ended on Saturday, but it was essentially a continuous 24 hour event. NWS semantics aside, 24 hours = 1 day.

I don't have the data at my fingertips, but I'm pretty sure that the snow fell for more than 24 hours in February 2003.

+1 for Clif: very fishy indeed. BWI measurements intentionally messed with to avoid fed responsibility! And now we can't say we witnessed the biggest snowfall ever (officially). Bummer.

FR: Every disaster has its conspiracy theorists, it seems.

This storm occurred in the climate change (post-steriods) era. So whether it was a 1-day, 2-day, or 3-day storm, how can it be compared to storms that occurred in the global warming (steriods) era or the pre-global-warming (pre-steriods) era? jk The current NWS method of measuring every 6 hours seems like a reasonable compromise to incorporate compaction as a natural part of the process. When was that method adopted and which storm totals among the top storms were by that method?

The goverment can't even measure snow fall and so many people trust them to run healthcare?

Snow started in Columbia around 11:30 am on Friday (teeny-tiny flakes) and ended around 4:00 pm on Saturday - at least that was the view from my kitchen table.

I read somewhere on this blog that the biggest storm in this area was in 177x at 30-36 inches. People keep saying our storm this past weekend is evidence of climate change. So, what was the source of climate change back then?

I don't doubt that the climate may be warming or cooling. However, I think the idea that humans are causing most of the change is rather arrogant.

FR: Nobody who understands the science has said this storm - or any other storm - is evidence of climate change. They have said it is evidence of a very active southern jet stream, fueled by a moderate El Nino in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

I am a weather observer at Dulles Int'l Airport in Chantilly, Va. I worked the bulk of the storm from Friday afternoon into Saturday morning, and can tell you assuredly we had nowhere near the 32.4 inches you saw on the news. The NWS is using the observers as scapegoats to cover the fact that the depths they reported, in several cases, varied widely with what was actually measured. A couple points:

1. Observing is done per the regulations outlined in the federal manual 7900.5B, Surface Weather Observations. I've looked all through the manual and have not found where it says the snow board MUST be cleared every six hours. In close to a decade of weather observing, this is the first I've heard of this requirement. This was news to my colleague I worked the storm with as well, who has been a US Air Force forecaster for close to 2 decades.

2. We can't just sit for six hours and let the snow accumulate. There is a remark for "Snow Increasing Rapidly" that we must include each hour when 1 inch or more has fallen. We have to measure the snow in order to determine whether the remark is needed. That IS actually in the 7900.5B.

Office scuttlebutt has it that NWS Sterling measured no more than about 26 inches. It's rumored that management (who else?) made the decision to go with the 32.4 inch value.

I really think NWS Sterling is in CYA mode now. I fully admit that I'm not a genius, but I do believe I'm capable of putting a ruler in the snow and seeing how far up the snow goes on said ruler.

I realize this is about Baltimore, but just wanted to give a little defense of my fellow observer up that way.

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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