The Presidentsí Day Weekend Snowstorm of 2003

 

This massive snowstorm shutdown the local D.C. area, along with the entire northeast Megalopolis during the President's Day Weekend of February 15-17, 2003.  The average snowfall from Washington to Boston may have equaled the great storm of January 1996, which has been thought to be the biggest Megalopolis snowstorm in history for combined snow totals from all of the big cities of the Northeast.

This storm resulted from a classic "split jet stream" setup, with moisture produced from the southern "El Nino" branch interacting with a northern branch -- which provided a tremendous supply of cold air.  The southern branch earlier in the week had brought flooding rains and mudslides to
Southern California.

On the surface weather map, a huge bitterly cold Arctic high pressure system set up shop north of
New York State and New England during the entire weekend.  At the same time a storm center of rather modest intensity centered over the southern Plains Friday night took two full days to slowly trek across the South.  Finally, by Monday morning, the storm center passed by Ocean City and the snowfall in D.C ended.

Light rain broke out in the Metro area Friday night, with snow in the northern suburbs.  By Saturday morning, the snow line started receding slowly to the south as the
Arctic high drained in cold air from the north.  By Saturday night, up to 2" of additional snow had fallen, mostly in the southern and western suburbs.

During Saturday night, an interesting setup was seen on radar and satellite, with a continuous feed of heavy rain streaming up from the
Gulf of Mexico through eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and into West Virginia.  At that time, the heavy precipitation band ran into the huge mass of cold dense air mass to the north.  The precipitation band at that point was diverted to the east and streaked directly across the D.C. area.

Between 2 and
3 a.m. Sunday morning, heavy snow explosively broke out across the entire Metro region.  Whiteout conditions were noted over the next several hours, with snowfall rates exceeding 2" per hour.  By 7 a.m., 6-10" of snow had already fallen in the D.C. area.  Moderate-to-heavy snow continued all day Saturday without abatement.

Suddenly, around
8 p.m., the snow turned to sleet, even in the western suburbs.  Sleet continued all Sunday night, sometimes at a moderate to heavy rate.  The sleet did not add much to the total accumulations, but made for a very dense mass on the ground, which was quite difficult to shovel.

Finally, around mid-morning Monday, the precipitation ended as a brief period of moderate to heavy snow.

Officially, 16.7" of snow fell at Reagan National, which was
Washington's 5th greatest storm on record.  22.1" fell at Dulles Airport, their third greatest storm.  At BWI, an incredible 28.2" fell, breaking the all-time Baltimore record set during the Knickerbocker Storm of January 1922.

Generally 20-28" fell in the western, northern and northeast suburbs, and 15-20" fell from D.C. south.  The eastern suburbs fared well, with
Annapolis recording 23".

The storm continued to dump amazing totals all the way up to
Boston, MA and beyond.  In Philadelphia, 19" fell, their 4th greatest storm on record.  New York received 19.5 ", their 4th greatest storm and greatest ever in the month of February.  In Boston, an incredible 27.5" fell in 24 hours, setting an all time record.

How does the storm of 2003 stack up against other storms of the modern era?  A brief summary is as follows:

The Snowstorm of February 1979

 National:       18.7"
 BWI:             20.0
 Dulles           16.3"

Average:          18.3"   

Up to 26" fell in the eastern and southern suburbs.  About 3-6" of snow on the ground prior to the storm.

The Snowstorm of February 1983

  National:       16.6"
  BWI             22.8"
  Dulles:         22.8"

Average:          20.7"

Up to 30" fell in northwest suburbs.

The back-to-back Snowstorms of January 1987 (2 storms in 3 days)

  National:       20.0"
  BWI             21.9"
  Dulles:         21.2

Average:  21.0"

Up to 28" fell in southern suburbs

The Blizzard of January 1996

 National:       17.4"
 BWI:            22.5"
 Dulles:         24.6"

Average:          21.5"

25-30" in western suburbs.  About 6-10" of additional snow fell over five day period after the main storm with little melting.

The Presidentsí Day Weekend Snowstorm of February 2003

 National:        16.6"
 BWI:              28.2"
 Dulles:           22.4"

Average:           22.4"

Up to 28" in western, northern and northeast suburbs.

Comparison of 1996 and 2003 storms along northeast Megalopolis:

1996

Washington/Baltimore Average:    21.5"
Philadelphia:                               30.7"
New York:                                   20.1"
Boston:                                       18.0"

Average                                       22.6"


2003

Washington/Baltimore average:    23.3"
Philadelphia:                               19.0"
New York:                                   19.5"
Boston:                                       27.5"

Average:                                      22.3"