After the latest Blizzard to hit WNY, many viewers made the comparison and comment that it wasn’t a Blizzard because it wasn’t anything like the Blizzard of ’77. Many snowstorms that we deal with in WNY are compared to the Blizzard of ’77 because as long as it isn’t as bad as that, then it isn’t a real Blizzard.
The Blizzard of ’77 was a historical event. It was the Blizzard of all Blizzards. To compare every snow event to that one is unfair. It is like saying that only the tallest man in the world can be labeled as tall.
We are going to break down the last 5 Blizzards and show how different all of them were, comparing things like duration, impact, snowfall, temperatures, and winds speeds.
First, lets start with the definition of a Blizzard. For a snowstorm to be labeled a Blizzard it has to have wind speeds of over 35 mph and visibility under a quarter mile for a 3 hour period. That is it. There is no criteria for snowfall. It only has to do with winds speeds and visibility.
All 5 events listed were confirmed to have Blizzard conditions. The duration listed is a rough estimate of the total time frame of the storm, which also isn’t in the criteria but can go a long way in the impact that it has. The lasting effects of ’77 crippled the city of Buffalo for days. The 35 mph wind threshold for a Blizzard was almost doubled in ’77.
The interesting part of ’77 was that only about 12″ of new snow fell from the event. The winter of ’76-’77 was also a historically cold one. Lake Erie had frozen over very early and feet of snow piled up on top of it. The high wind event then blew that snow into the city and caused the drifts that you see in the those memorable photos from the storm.
Not long after, the “Six Pack” Blizzard hit the area, which was another drawn out event lasting roughly 5 days. Wind speeds were not as significant but the temperatures were very cold and the snowfall amounts were high.
The danger of comparing one storm to another is that the impacts will not always be the same. The “Blizzard” designation only hits on the visibility and winds speed minimum. Our job is to relay those impacts.
Tornadoes can be devastating but just like a Blizzard, they can vary greatly in their power. Tornadoes are categorized into the EF-Scale but it is not until AFTER the storm has hit that they get rated.
WNY is no stranger to strong wind events and it’s not uncommon to get wind gusts that are the equivalent of an EF-0 Tornado. The Blizzard of ’77 had peak wind gusts that were the equivalent of an EF-0 Tornado, however, a Tornado can be far more damaging. When forecasters are talking about Tornadoes, they relay the impact, such as what kind of winds speeds are being recorded, what kind of damage is being recorded, how large is the Tornado. These are the impacts. The next time a Tornado warning comes down in Oklahoma, it would be dangerous for anyone to disregard it and say, “Well it’s no Moore tornado.” For those unfamiliar with the Moore tornado, it is the EF-5 tornado that hit the city in the spring of 2013, killing 23 people.
While obviously the Blizzard of ’77 trumped both of the Blizzards this year, it’s important to talk about the impacts that were forecast and how the events were handled.
Here were two forecasts for snow and ice for the day of the event. We were generally able to pinpoint the snowfall amounts that would fall, and hit on the fact that Southern Tier areas would have rain that would hinder snowfall totals and increase the potential for ice accumulation.
Here is portion of Don Paul’s forecast from the day before talking about the impacts:
“There won’t be much on the ground at the start of the commute, but conditions will dramatically deteriorate by late morning into the evening. Snow & Wind will increase, with Whiteouts becoming likely by midday and for the PM commute. Amounts are lower near the PA line because of an expected longer period of mixed precipitation. As arctic air rushes in before midday, initially slushy snow will become fluffy and drift more easily. Temps will drop into the teens by late in the day. Snow will gradually diminish at night, but Blowing Snow will continue.”
In the forecast we hit on the fact that this would be relatively short-lived event. We then talked about how a couple of days later there would be a warm-up. Of course it wasn’t going to be like ’77, we were never forecasting anything close to the duration or wind speeds that ’77 had.
Something else to think about is what would the Blizzard of ’77’s impact be if it hit today. Forecasting and communication have come a very long way in the almost 40 years since the event. Today there are far more newscasts, more meteorologists, more methods of obtaining the necessary information. All of these play a role. The surprise of ’77 would not happen today and the initial impact of cars getting stuck and stranded would not happen today.
City and county officials did a very good job during the last two Blizzards of keeping people off of the interstates when conditions deteriorated to prevent accidents and to prevent people from getting stranded. Businesses and schools listened to the warning of difficult evening travel and either canceled for the day or sent people home early.
The lasting effects of ’77 were unavoidable. Impassable roads for days would have still happened. The power outages would have still happened. But people would have been more prepared for it.
Here in WNY we are a proud and resilient bunch but it is important to heed the warnings of the impacts of a forecast for an incoming storm, even if it doesn’t meet ’77 criteria.