BLIZZARD OF '96
JANUARY 8, 1995
A record setting snowstorm paralyzed much of the East Coast, with winter emergencies declared from Georgia through New York. At least 23 people died in storm-related incidents, and thousands went without heat. Major airports closed down. Schools in New York City were cancelled for the first time since 1978, and the New York Stock Exchange was open for only three hours.
JIM LEHRER: The big snowstorm in the East is our lead story tonight. We find out what happened and why now from Frederick Ostby, who tracks major storms for the National Weather Service from the storm prediction center in Kansas City, Missouri. Mr. Ostby, welcome.
FREDERICK OSTBY, National Weather Science: (Kansas City) Good evening.
JIM LEHRER: First, is it correct to call this historic storm of, storm of the century, all the superlatives, do they fit?
MR. OSTBY: Well, this is a huge storm, and it does deserve superlatives. We're seeing record-breaking snows all up and down many cities in the East Coast, and it's still going on with blizzard conditions in a number of places, so I think it deserves all the, all the notoriety it's getting.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And when you--when you folks officially talk of historic things and storms, how do you measure it? Is it the number of inches, or its severity of winds, damage, or, or what?
MR. OSTBY: Well, it's usually, Jim, in terms of the number of inches of snow that fall over--quite often we talk about how much snow falls in a 24-hour period, for example. That's one of the ways we, we categorize storms and end up with a so-called top ten list, if you will.
JIM LEHRER: So in this part of where--I'm talking to you now from Washington--the storm--the history started South of here and has gone all the way up through the Shenandoah Valley, North of here, Philadelphia, there were, there were record snow falls. It's now into New York and it's going further North, is that right?
MR. OSTBY: That's correct. It looks like New York City may end up with a record too or come close to it. I think the record there is the March 18, 1988 blizzard, and second to that was probably the December 26, 1947. But we've seen records even there or in the Washington, D.C. area, and down around Roanoake and Lynchburg, Philadelphia certainly, with over 30 inches of snow, just incredible amounts of snow.
JIM LEHRER: Is it possible in simple terms to tell us what caused this?
MR. OSTBY: Well, the scenario was one. It's a classic Northeastern--what we call a NorEaster, where a storm, low pressure system develops over the Southeastern United States, tracks Northeastward, and then regenerates itself off the Carolina Coast. And we see these things happen quite frequently in winter storms, but I think what sets this one apart probably is the intensity of the low pressure system and the ability then to draw into it warm moist air first from the Gulf of Mexico, and then upward from the Atlantic Ocean, itself, so tremendous amounts of moisture, nowhere to go with it. It goes up and causes snow, which falls down on all these metropolitan areas.
JIM LEHRER: Literally, what causes snow?
MR. OSTBY: Literally, well, basically, it's what we do is the air is lifted. It condenses, forms clouds, because of the clouds with ice crystals in them, water droplets adhere to that, and they get larger in snowflakes. And so with all that moisture there it has to be wrung out, and it falls, of course, when it's cold, it falls as snow, and if it falls through a warmer layer, it changes to rain.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what caused this thing to hang around here so long? This storm started here in the Washington area at least Saturday. We're sitting here on Monday. The thing ended Monday--this afternoon.
MR. OSTBY: Well, there's a couple of reasons for that. One is that the precipitation area out ahead of the storm preceded the actual storm center by quite a bit. So that, that had an early onset, and then the second thing is that that storm which is now off the New Jersey coast and heading out in the Atlantic has been a snow mover, so you've got the--the snow has ended for the most part from like Washington and New York, but it's still going pretty much gangbusters over, over the Eastern parts of New England.
JIM LEHRER: Now, for us dummies here that don't know about weather and these kinds of things, why is this happening? We're having this record snowstorm at a time a week after we've been told that the Earth is getting warmer.
MR. OSTBY: Well, even, even if global warming is taking place--and there's a lot of controversy in that--it does not preclude periods of time where it goes back to cold. It just seems kind of coincidental and maybe untimely that all the news about global warming came out just before this storm hit.
JIM LEHRER: There's no connection between global warming and a snowstorm?
MR. OSTBY: Definitely not.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, here in Washington, at least--I don't know what the situation was in Philadelphia and New York--but here in Washington, which I watched personally very carefully just for personal reasons, the forecasters had this thing down cold. They were telling us on Friday exactly when it was going to hit, exactly the intensity, how long it was going to last, and with a few exceptions around the edges, they called it right on the money. How were they able to do that?
MR. OSTBY: We're very proud of our Weather Service folks that were involved in that and were able to give so much lead time as far as warning is concerned for the people. Well, part of it, it's due to the computer models that we have at our headquarters at Kent Springs, Maryland, that provide us with a great deal of guidance kind of information, plus the know-how and the knowledge that the--our forecasters have, and so you're right, that was a very well advertised storm.
JIM LEHRER: There's no new development--I mean, there's no new development in forecasting, because I have also seen just the opposite, where things have been forecast, terrible storms, and then somehow it missed us, or there was not supposed to be any snow and suddenly we had 20 inches, so there's nothing new to report on this.
MR. OSTBY: Well, we can't say there's nothing new, because there's an evolutionary process of getting new technology--
JIM LEHRER: I see.
MR. OSTBY: --and things like that, but that does not--we can still mis-forecast and at times because we know the atmosphere is a tremendously complex system, so just because we hit this one really well doesn't mean we can't still have problems down the road, but I think you're right, though, the trend is definitely in the, in the upward direction.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ostby, I have to ask you, forecasters are saying as we speak that don't get too relaxed around here because there's going to be another storm, not as strong, but another storm coming Friday for this weekend, is that true?
MR. OSTBY: Well, I think--I don't think we should get to nervous about that, but I think it's something we have to pay attention to because there is another system developing in the Midwest. Right now it does not look as strong as this one. Also, I think it's--what was--set this one as being unusual, how cold it was, and so that you didn't lots of times in the Washington area, I know, you have rain instead of snow, or some--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. OSTBY: --kind of a mix, but I think on this next storm, it could easily be kind of a wintry mix and could be some rain, and it may not necessarily be as strong as this last one. So we'll have to wait and see just how that one evolves.
JIM LEHRER: Well, where you're sitting, in Kansas City, in the Midwest, these kinds of snows are, are more common than they are here. We--it's not uncommon in Washington to go a winter and have maybe five or six inches of snow the whole winter. That's why this is so huge. Kansas City, Kansas, Midwest, no big deal.
MR. OSTBY: Well, I wouldn't say that. I think if we had three feet of snow here, we'd be--we'd be struggling quite a bit.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Mr. Ostby, thank you very much.
MR. OSTBY: You bet.