Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Blizzard of 2016 -- could it ever happen here?

The Blizzard of 2016. Snowmageddon. Snowzilla. Jonas. That thing that made the U.S. House of Representatives cancel all votes for an entire week. Call it what you want, but the winter storm that raked parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this past weekend was a beast.

Widespread snow totals of 1 to 3 feet were recorded, with the largest daily snowfall on record measured in New York City's Central Park (26.6"). Record and near-record snows were also measured in other major cities, including Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

Snowy scene from Central Park in New York City posted by Instagram user @ozgurdonmaz

So could a winter storm of that magnitude ever occur here along the Gulf Coast?

No way, right?

You might be surprised.

On the 14th and 15th of February 1895, Mother Nature produced a snowstorm in the Deep South that seems inconceivable to those of us who have spent our entire lives along the Gulf Coast. One to two feet of snow fell in many spots around south Louisiana, including a still standing record of 12.5" here in Baton Rouge. And in the "Frog Capital of the World", Rayne, LA, a city used to dealing with frog-strangling rains instead was buried under 24", or 2 feet of snow. Coming in a close second was Lake Charles with a total of 22".

Selected snow totals from February 14-15, 1895 was published in Monthly Weather Review.

What makes the 1895 event even more impressive is that the next biggest snowstorm in Baton Rouge produced 6" of snow in 1914, or a half-foot less than that record value. Further examination of the biggest snow events for Baton Rouge shows that we've recorded no more than 3.5" in a single storm since World War I.

How do we know about the 1895 snowstorm along the Gulf Coast? Information is limited, but a brief account of the impacts in Louisiana can be found in the American Meteorological Society's publication Monthly Weather Review:

My favorite line from that summary is this:

     "Within a week after this extreme cold the ground was covered with a mantle of snow to a depth from a few inches at the Mississippi jetties to as much as two feet in southwest Louisiana."

In other words, the snow extended all the way down to the mouth of the Mississippi River. And "mantle of snow" is a phrase I'll have to tuck away in my back pocket for future snowstorms.

I've been able to dig up just a couple of pictures from the historic event, one out of New Orleans and the other from Lake Charles.

Canal Street in New Orleans during the February 1895 snowstorm.

Lake Charles family in the snow from February 1895. Courtesy: McNeese State University.

The few accounts of the storm that do exist point toward low pressure moving eastward through the Gulf of Mexico as the likely culprit behind the record snows. That fits what we most often see when there is a threat of ice and/or snow along the Gulf Coast.

The "Daily Weather Maps" produced by the then U.S. Weather Bureau show a low headed toward the Florida Peninsula by February 15, but the maps likely underestimate the intensity of the low due to the sparsity of weather observations.

Daily Weather Map from the U.S. Weather Bureau for Feb. 14, 1895.

Daily Weather Map from the U.S. Weather Bureau for Feb. 15, 1895.
So could this ever happen again? Sure. 

Is it likely? Not very. 

We've been through 21 Baton Rouge mayors, 29 Louisiana governors and hurricanes such as Audrey, Betsy, Camille, Andrew, Katrina, Rita and Gustav in the time since we last saw a blockbuster snowstorm in south Louisiana. 

But, hey, the Saints also won a Super Bowl during that stretch. Who ever thought that would happen?