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Early Snowstorm Takes New York City By Surprise: What Happened?

Snow covered long island expressway

 

The surprise snowstorm that crippled New York and its suburbs during the late afternoon and evening of Nov. 15, 2018 accumulated 6.4" in Central Park - the earliest date on record for a snowfall of six inches or more.  Snow began falling heavily shortly before commuters headed home from work, snarling rush hour traffic for hours; countless tree branches, many still laden with leaves (at least in New York's five boroughs), snapped from the weight of the snow, creating a hazard for pedestrians, drivers and commuter trains alike.  What was so surprising was how readily the snow piled up on the streets and sidewalks. 

 

Damaged tree

 

The morning after the snowfall found me a bit sheepish because 24 hours earlier I had dismissively told a number of co-workers not to expect much in the way of accumulation in the City because the ground was still too warm for snow to lay on the pavement.  From the 14th floor of my office building I've often seen snow falling heavily, but it doesn't necessarily mean it was laying on the cement surfaces at street level.  Figuring this would be the case with this snowfall, imagine my surprise when I left work at around 6:15 and saw that snow had piled up not only on the sidewalks but on the streets as well.  (Fortunately for me, I live in Manhattan so my subway commute home wasn't affected by the snow.)

So, what made this snowfall so disruptive?

  1. Novelty Factor. It was the first snowfall of the season, which always throws people for a loop.  (And, on average, first snowfalls are usually less than two inches.)  The fact that it occurred a month earlier than the typical first snowfall added to the siege mentality.  
  2. Lack of Warning.  There was no warning of a snowfall this significant for the City.  And although 1-2" inches had been predicted, even that amount was downplayed.
  3. Bad Timing.  Schools were letting out and commuters were leaving work early as the heaviest snow moved in.  (If this snowfall had occurred before daybreak, while children and workers were still at home, it would have caused only minor inconvenience.)
  4. Snow Intensity.  Although 6.4" doesn't seem like an amount that would bring things to a standstill, most of the accumulation occurred in a four-hour period, which meant that snow fell at a rate of one to two inches per hour (reducing visibility, which was another hindrance for drivers). 
  5. Colder Than Expected.  The coastal low pulled more cold air into the region than was expected, with the temperature dropping from 36° to 28° in just a few hours.  In March the area had been buffeted by a series of nor'easters that forecasters warned would bring heavy accumulations of snow, but temperatures in Manhattan hovered around 32° and 33° so the snow was more slushy than frozen, which inhibited accumulation.  And while the March 22 nor'easter produced a snowfall of 8.4", it fell over the course of nearly 24 hours.

 

As debilitating as it was, this snowfall may not go down in City weather folklore like the great blizzard of 1888, the Lindsay snowstorm of February 1969 or the post-Christmas blizzard of 2010 (to name just a few).  After all, unlike these classic snowstorms, the snow from this one, at least in the City, was mostly gone 12 hours after the first flakes fell as the temperature rose above freezing once the snow stopped, rain fell overnight, and the mercury was in the 40s by daybreak on 11/16. 

 

Nov 15 snowstorm

 

 

Comments

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William

Contrary to the analysis that you published on a history of fizzled snow storms, you should publish another analysis on a history of snow storms that over achieved (or over performed). This was the case with this snow storm, the blizzard that occurred in January 2016 and possibly in other ones too.

Rob

It's already in the works ...

William

...and to think that nine weeks would pass before the next measurable snow would fall (0.5" of snow on January 18, 2019).

William

from the day of this storm to February 11, 2019 (88 days), there would be no more days with snow of one inch or more. when was the last winter season with more days that separated a winter's first and second snowfall of one inch or more? I know the winter of 2012 experienced such a lull of eighty-four days.

Rob

This could be the greatest hiatus, but I'm not certain. (I may I have this fact somewhere, perhaps even on one of my posts, but I don't recall.) One thing to keep in mind is that there have been four winters that didn't have a second snowfall of an inch or more: 2002, 1998, 1995 and 1973. And 1998's didn't occur until March 22.

William

this would end up being the snowiest day of the 2018-2019 season. only four other Novembers have had this distinction.

1882 - November thirtieth (9")
1898 - November 27 (5")
1931 - November 27 (2")
1989 - November 23 (4.4")

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