Weatherbox: Call This a Blizzard?

(Click here to read about the snow shenanigans of our diarist, Walter Shapiro.)

Among the duties of this column is to put weather events that cause momentary media alarm into historical perspective. (See last summer’s heat-wave-inspired “Weatherbox” and “Weatherbox: Part II.”) Yesterday, a “fast-developing storm hit almost the entire eastern seaboard, leaving cities, towns, farms and mountains from Georgia to Massachusetts blanketed with the heaviest snowfall since a blizzard four years ago,” according to today’s Washington Post. Chatterbox, who lives in D.C.–a place that’s routinely paralyzed by snow flurries–isn’t denying that the snowstorm was disruptive. It was even more impressive in Raleigh, N.C., where the 20 inches of snow that fell set a local record. As usual, however, Chatterbox feels impatient with the provincialism of local records and asks: What’s the most snow that’s ever fallen, anywhere?

This data isn’t as easy to keep track of as temperature extremes, partly because snow melts and drifts and does all sorts of other things that make it difficult to measure, and partly because the world’s extreme snowfalls tend to occur at very high elevations where there aren’t a lot of climatologists hanging around. However, Mount Baker, in Washington state, appears to have been certified by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as setting a record last year for “the most snowfall ever measured in the United States [Chatterbox presumes that means the continental United States] in a single season.” This occurred during the snowfall season that stretched from autumn 1998 through spring 1999. The snowfall amount was 1,140 inches of snow. (The previous record was 1,122 inches, which fell on Mount Rainier, Wash., in the 1971-72 season.) Fully 36 inches fell on Mount Baker on Dec. 2, 1998. During the months of January and February 1999, there were only eight days when it didn’t snow. It even snowed a couple of inches on June 5, 1999. Now that’s a lot of snow.

This information must, of course, be placed in context. In most places, heavy snowfalls are considered a troublesome (albeit picturesque) natural phenomenon. In places that depend heavily on revenues from ski resorts, like Mount Baker, heavy snowfalls are considered manna from heaven. Chatterbox doesn’t mean to suggest for a minute that the misery of Durham, N.C., when it snows there, is in any way preferable to the jubilation in Mount Baker, Wash. Moreover, the very fact that Mount Baker is a place where people pray for heavy snowfalls makes it likelier that the locals will collect potentially record-setting data more energetically than people in other places. Surely this skews the data, even assuming Mount Baker is scrupulously honest in its record-keeping. Nonetheless: The quantity of snow that fell on the eastern seaboard this week was a pittance compared with the quantity that fell last season on Mount Baker.