Major Snow Storm
The first major snow storm of the 2004-2005 season got underway during the late morning and early afternoon on Saturday January 22. Expectations were high for the storm with blizzard warnings issued by the National Weather Service from Noon Saturday the 22nd through noon Sunday the 23rd for most of eastern New York and western New England. (This blizzard warning was the first issued for the region since the March 1993 blizzard. A true blizzard, which requires that winds reach 35 mph for at least a three hour consecutive period, leading to visibility of 1/4 or less accompanied by extreme cold, is rare, especially in the Northeast, which is why the warning is hardly ever issued. The criteria is hard to achieve, even in the most potent of storms.) But many of the ingredients appeared to be in place for a potential blizzard with the development and passage of this storm.
Setting the stage for this storm was a bitterly cold air mass, that had established itself over the Northeast earlier in the week. A record low maximum temperature of 3° was set on Friday, January 21 at Albany, followed by a morning low of -10°, the lowest of the season to date, on the 22nd. Any snow falling in an arctic air mass as cold as the one in place would develop a tremendous "Fluff" factor as snow to water ratios would run on the order of 25:1. (One inch of liquid equivalent precipitation would equal 25" of snow.)
The storm itself, was not a classic heavy Northeast snow storm, at least initially. The storm began as a strong clipper system that moved through the Midwest on Friday the 21st, producing up to a foot of snow in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit. The intense upper level storm associated with the clipper moved into Pennsylvania early Saturday morning, spreading an initial round of moderate to heavy snow which arrived across eastern New York and western New England during the late morning and early afternoon. (The first snow fell at Albany around 2pm.) The bitter cold conditions in place as the snow began (daytime high temperature @ Albany of 2°) allowed only a small amount of moisture to turn into between 2"-6" of snow, that quickly blanketed the region during the afternoon producing very slippery, but not impassable travel conditions. Very little wind accompanied the initial rounds of snow through the afternoon and evening.
The clipper storm, by the mid afternoon began transferring it's energy to the huge temperature contrast zone that existed between the arctic air over the Northeast and the warmer air along the mid Atlantic coast. Low pressure formed near Washington, DC and took over from the original storm which subsequently died out over northern Pennsylvania during the early nighttime hours. The coastal storm began a rapid deepening process, consistent with a classic Nor'easter, as it fed off of the parent upper air disturbance and strong temperature contrast. Winds increased over eastern New York and western New England in response to the rapidly falling air pressure associated with the coastal storm. However, winds did not pick up considerably until after 1:00am. Snowfall, which had temporarily become a little lighter and more intermittent in the region during the evening, began organizing and increasing in intensity again by 11:00pm as the lift in the atmosphere the developing coastal storm was creating, intensified.
Near blizzard conditions developed across much of the region by 2:00am with wind gusts ranging from 25 to 35 mph, with some 40+ mph gusts in the higher elevations, and snowfall rates of one to two inches per hour. Considerable blowing and drifting snow occurred, especially in the higher elevations, between 2:00am and 6:00am across the region on Sunday the 23rd. However, the conditions, as nasty as they were for a few hours, did not quite meet blizzard criteria over much of the region, making this a strong winter storm, that produced occasional white out conditions through the pre-dawn hours on Sunday.
The situation, however, was much different in eastern Massachusetts. Winds by Sunday morning gusted to 50 and 60 mph over Cape Cod and the Islands with as much as 38" of snow in parts of Plymouth county, MA and almost as much on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. The storm became a dangerous blizzard over eastern New England with snowfall amounts as high as two feet as far west and Worcester county and north into southern New Hampshire. The storm became so intense for a time Sunday morning that visible satellite pictures showed a distinct eye-like feature.
Over eastern New York and western New England, the mountains played a big role in the snowfall distribution, which is typical when the circulation around a storm is at least in part responsible for the generation of snow. On the east facing slopes of the Catskills, snowfall amounts were greatly elevated to between 15" and 19". Similar snowfall amounts were recorded in northern Berkshire county north to Landgrove, VT and east into Windham county VT, as terrain in those locations enhanced snow by giving the air an extra push up, as it encountered the obstacle while flowing around the storm. On the lee side of the mountains, especially in western Bennington county, Washington county, and Rensselaer county, the opposite occurred, as the air descended the mountain slopes, drying out slightly, to yield slightly lower snowfall accumulations, on the order of 7"-11". Salem, in Washington county is a town that is frequently "Shadowed" as it was in this case, with only 5" of snow recorded. Much of the remainder of the region came in with between 11"-15", making this a heavy to major snowstorm for the region.
By 9:00am, the sinking air behind the monster storm well south of Cape Cod had caused skies to clear. The sunshine, however, did not temper the bitterly cold air mass which remained in place. The high temperature for the day only managed to climb to 12° at Albany. With the gusty NW winds to 25 mph, blowing and drifting all the fresh snow, wind chills averaged between -10° and -20° through the day. The aired cooled further at night with clear skies and a diminishing wind. The fresh, deep, layer of refrigerant sent the temperature at Albany to -16° Monday morning, the coldest morning low in nine years, and to between 20° and 25° below zero at the Glens Falls airport...a known cold location.
The map below shows the snowfall distribution from the January 22-23, 2005 storm. The distribution was created using snowfall totals observed and reported by WeatherNet 6 weather spotters and National Weather Service Cooperative observers. Individual WeatherNet 6 snowfall totals for the event are listed in the table below the graphic.
WeatherNet 6 Snowfall Totals from the January 22-23, 2005 Major Snowstorm