Friday, February 15, 2013

Storms of the Century

So-called hundred year storms occur with increasing frequency, sometimes every ten years, we joke. Hundred year storms are not a predictable phenomenon, because weather systems do not depend on long-range statistical predictions. The science of probability is far from exact. The early February New England snowstorm was touted in many reports as “The Big One.” The storm turned out to be significant, but its impact was downgraded to one of the top snow producers of all time. We may wonder how a few tenths of an inch of total snowfall makes a difference when we rank the severity and impact of a major snowstorm. In Boston, this snow-producer ranked #5. Ski resorts in northern New England eagerly anticipated a better season than last year’s financial disaster.

Since last week I have been reviewing weather records from many past decades. I have also reviewed my personal recollections of significant winter storms. These recollections reinforce my suspicion that most blizzards primarily affect limited regional areas. While historic regional storms are significant, truly monster storms impacting broad geographical regions fall into a different category.

Such is the Superstorm of 1993. The storm rightly deserves the accolade “Storm of the Century” from fascinated weather historians. Personal recollections imprint such events on our memory. In that category, I recall traveling several miles from our New Jersey home to shovel off my father’s flat-topped garage roof before the 30 inches of heavy snow collapsed it. Syracuse, New York, a city a few miles from my birthplace, received 43 inches during that storm. Historic details of that monster blizzard and incredible statistics of the superstorm consign my personal recollections to insignificance.

A careful search of the literature should convince readers that this was the most severe winter storm ever to strike the United States in terms of overall scope. Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel wrote this in his blog entry about that 1993 Superstorm in 2008: “With 26 states and estimates of 100 million people being affected, a severe impact on travel, hundreds of fatalities, and billions of dollars of damage and other economic losses, there’s not been a winter storm in historical weather records before or since, at least in the U. S., to match the overall scope and effects of the one on March 12-13, 1993.”

The catalogue of that storm’s statistics is overwhelming. Following is a partial and inadequate listing. The storm extended from the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and even Cuba, to southern Canada, impacting states in the south with record cold, wind, snowfall, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. The storm in the Gulf of Mexico capsized one ship, causing seven deaths, and generated ocean storm surges resulting in drowning of several coastal Florida residents. Then heavy, southern snows fell in extremely cold conditions, especially in the Appalachians, extending even to Chattanooga, TN with snowfalls of 2-4 feet. Unprecedented snowfalls continued north with depths also measured in feet. When the total snowfall across the 26 states affected was totaled, the figure came to a staggering 12.91 cubic miles, greater than measured in any other snowfall.

In a triumph of weather forecasting, meteorologists had predicted the potential for this event as many as 7-10 days in advance. Five days before the storm our country was warned of a historic weather event of enormous impact. Forecasters had seen unusual jet stream patterns, some dipping far to the south, merging over the Gulf of Mexico, and permitting an outbreak of extremely cold air ushered down from Canada. As it interacted with warm, moist air, the superstorm developed explosively. Many southern residents were unable to grasp the possibility of such an unusual late winter outbreak.

Since the recent New England blizzard some commentators are immersed in a feeding frenzy of alarmism that such events signal global warming is upon us with a vengeance. Are we to believe that cold waves and blizzards point to a conclusion that global warming is increasingly manifest? Yes, we are told, for global warming merely amplifies the extremes of weather. Superstorm 1993, the most extensive winter storm of the 20th century, struck long before current global warming apprehension had gripped national psyche. In the next to last year of the 19th century our country experienced the Great Blizzard of 1899 which gripped Florida and other southern states with snow and the only sub-zero temperatures ever recorded in the Sunshine State. On its northward passage, this storm dropped the temperature in Cape May, NJ, to 0˚F, along with 34 inches of snow, both all time records for that area. The Great Blizzard of 1899 was not dependent on global warming to fuel its intensity.

In addition to my still-present youthful excitement over a robust snowfall, the positive benefits of blizzards far outweigh the negatives in the long run. Applying common wisdom in walking, shoveling, or driving illustrates the point. In the scope of God’s care for the human race created in His image, we offer Him thanks for the provision of plentiful fresh water for support of Earth’s seven billion souls.