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Blizzard in Baltimore, Jan. 22-23, 2016

A state of emergency has been declared in several states, including Maryland, along the East Coast as a result of a classic nor’easter that dumped more than a foot of snow on Baltimore as of 5 AM Saturday and will probably continue to produce powdery snow into Sunday morning.

Virginia National Guard soldiers coordinate efforts with the Virginia State Police in Fairfax, Jan. 22. The VNG has about 400 personnel staged and ready for the storm. (Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne / Flickr CC)

A declaration of a state of emergency allows the governors of these states to mobilize the National Guard in storm relief efforts and to take other actions to help the state clean up, recover, and keep people as safe as possible. This declaration is especially useful in areas that find themselves, because warmer weather is typical and blizzards less frequent, inadequately prepared to reduce the blizzard’s impact on communities with a simple or more routine streets-and-sanitation response.

Most schools in Maryland were closed Friday, as the storm was expected to start casting a blanket of white beauty on Baltimore’s otherwise unattractive landscape by Friday afternoon. The first snowflakes fell at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport just after 2 PM, and the airport closed Friday evening.

The storm could bring up to two feet or more of snow across the state and wind gusts as dangerous as 60 mph. The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Baltimore from 3 PM Friday to 6 AM Sunday, and people in the area should keep posted for updates.

A blizzard is defined as a storm with winds of 35 mph or greater and snow that falls or blows around so much that visibility is reduced to less than a quarter mile for at least three hours.

The snow and winds have the potential to cause big snow drifts, dangerous travel conditions, power outages with associated suffering of people without heat or the ability to cook food for several days, etc.

But this isn’t just a blizzard; it’s a nor’easter, named for the direction of prevailing winds, which come from the northeast. Along the East Coast of the US, the storms result from a clash of arctic air from the north and over land with warm, moist air masses that hover over the Atlantic.

In addition, classic nor’easters like this one usually carry massive amounts of tropical moisture up the coast from the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of which are enhanced by El Niño. This storm moved across the Gulf states on Thursday, bringing tornado watches and severe lightning in Texas and Louisiana. Generally speaking, this weather pattern has been responsible for many blizzards in states along the East Coast that brought the highest snowfalls.

The highest two-day snowfall in Baltimore came with 26.3 inches on January 27 and 28, 1922, and this storm, as of Thursday, was forecast to bring up to 30 inches of snow across the city during January 22 and 23. In 10th place among Baltimore’s two-day snowfall records is a 15.5-inch snowstorm on February 15 and 16, 1958.

UPDATE Jan. 24: Although warmer temps and some possible rain over the next week should help with the cleanup, the snowfall set a record in Baltimore, according to the Baltimore Sun, which reported that 29.2 inches of snow fell on January 22 and 23. Scott Dance in the Sun has a good analysis of the storm’s underlying mechanism.
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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