Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Blast from the Past

We seem to have dodged a bullet tonight.  Early forecasts predicted that Charlottesville might be facing six to ten inches of snow on top of the 15 or so inches that walloped us last weekend.  A changeover to sleet and freezing drizzle seems to have thrown a blanket over those predictions, and we're likely to wake up in the morning with no more than an inch or two of the wet, white stuff on the ground.  Morning rush hour might be slower, but not disrupted.

Apparently the storm tracked northward, so Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., will still suffer multi-centimeters of snow in addition to the two feet or so that capital area residents have been trying to dig their way out of since Saturday.

All this snow -- a record seasonal snowfall for Charlottesville -- reminded me of one of the "big ones":  the 1979 Presidents' Day snowstorm that hit Washington while I was a sophomore at Georgetown University.  Records show that National Airport recorded an official total of 18.7 inches the weekend of February 19-20, 1979, but as an article in Tuesday's Washington Post explains, this number probably underestimates what fell on other Washington-area neighborhoods.

Paul Farhi wrote in the Style section:
National Airport became the official NWS reporting station for the District in 1941 and has recorded the most precise and voluminous weather data in the region since then, said Chris Strong, a Weather Service meteorologist. The city had its own official station in Georgetown dating back to the Civil War, but that was closed as the Weather Service moved to serve the meteorological needs of the growing aviation industry, he said. Dozens of weather "spotters" provide readings from around the city, but none as frequently as the office at National Airport.

What's more, the lower snowfall totals recorded there aren't really surprising, given the airport's location along the Potomac, Strong said. The river and sea-level location moderate the direction and influence of winds in the area.

Bob Ryan, WRC-TV's chief meteorologist, points out, too, that the construction of Crystal City immediately to the airport's west further affected wind patterns, making the airport's microclimate somewhat more benign than elsewhere.

In all, "precipitation levels can vary quite wildly" over a relative small area, Strong said. In fact, Alexandria -- a short jog south of the airport -- recorded 28.9 inches during the storm.
My memory of that 1979 storm jibes with that explanation. I remember snow much deeper than a foot and a half -- and home movies I took in the storm's aftermath seem to confirm my memories. I dug up -- no pun intended -- this two-minute clip of brief shots in Georgetown, including one really quick flash of Wisconsin Avenue right at the beginning, with most of the pictures taken on the main campus and East Campus of Georgetown University. Alert to Georgetown alumni who were frolicking in the snow over Presidents' Day weekend in 1979: you might see yourself in this video. (That includes you, Roger Theis, Leonard MacKenzie, Joe Banno, and Rick Peete, inter alia.)

Here's the clip, which I posted to YouTube on Monday evening, just before that popular web site went into maintenance mode for several hours:
(The music accompanying the pictures is an instrumental version of Georgetown's alma mater, known in 1979 as "Sons of Georgetown" and now called "Hail, Oh Georgetown," sung to the traditional Welsh anthem, "Men of Harlech.")

Just to bring things up to date, last Sunday, in the bright sunlight that inevitably follows a major snow storm, I took a few photos on the grounds of another renowned institution, the University of Virginia. Here's a sample; the rest can be found on Facebook.





Thinking back on that video -- made on a Super-8 movie camera with a zoom lens -- those kids you see throwing snowballs at Sugar's are now in their 30s or 40s, probably with kids of their own.  Time flies as fast as the jet stream brings an Arctic blast to the mid-Atlantic region.

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黑鑽石 said...


Anonymous said...

Nope -- we didn't dodge the bullet.

Rick Sincere said...

I'm not sure where you live, Anonymous, but here in Charlottesville we only got 2-3 inches. I'd call that "dodging a bullet," since the original forecast was for 6-10 inches.

I understand that NoVA and D.C. are in deep snow, and that conditions are so bad that even snowplows have been forced to the side of the road.

But here in C'ville it's sunny and pleasant.