January 6-7, 1996- Blizzard Bust

The first two weeks of January 1996 proved to be a very wintry period, culiminating in a severe snowstorm with blizzard conditions on the 6th-7th.  Although this storm was made famous for its effects on the Eastern Seaboard, the storm also had a significant impact on areas to the west of the Appalachians. 

This storm developed in the Gulf of Mexico on the 6th and moved up along the East Coast through the 7th.  Forecasts for Ohio were not especially indicative of an impending major storm.  A weak low pressure moving through the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys was supposed to die out as the main storm on the Coast took over.  Ohio was generally forecast to receive 1-3″, mainly along and south of I-70, with the higher end of the range down along the Ohio River.  Even as late as the night of the 6th when snow began to fall, forecasters were not calling for a significant event. 

I have very vivid memories of seeing the afternoon and evening news on the 6th and being disappointed at the forecasts for the storm to pass us well to the east.  However, by the morning of the 7th, it was clear that the forecast had gone very wrong.  Heavy snow and strong winds affected mainly the southern 2/3rds of the state.  For some locations, there would be more than 30 hours of continuous snowfall. 

Blizzard conditions raged across west-central and northwestern sections of the state, where winds gusted over 55mph.  Blowing and drifting snowfall piled drifts several feet deep, and travel across the state was made impassible, particularly on country roads.  For many, this was one of the greatest January snowstorms ever, and in some cases, the worst storm since the Great Blizzard of 1978.  8-10″ was common in the state, but there was as much as 15″ in parts of the Ohio River communities, as well as areas in west-central Ohio. 

Some snowfall totals:

Columbus: 9.0″  Dayton: 8.0″  Cincinnati: 14.4″

So why had the forecast gone so wrong?   The weak low pressure that was supposed to die off as the larger system wound up along the East Coast did not die out as expected.  Instead, it moved into the lower Ohio Valley and essentially stalled as it spun itself down slowly.  This low helped suck moisture over the mountains and into Ohio.  Temperatures were cold enough for this moisture to fall as all snow, and a tight gradient brought with it strong winds.  The result was a paralyzing winter storm and one of the all-time forecast busts ever.

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