Jiggity Jog

Every now and then I deviate from a bicycling-related blog to comment on other experiences in the cycle of life.  This one’s about a snowstorm, an event I suppose is a “cycle” at least in the sense of the counter-clockwise rotation of a northern hemisphere low pressure area.

I missed the end of the comic opera that was Washington DC meteorologists forecasting the non-storm of Sunday (or was it to have come Saturday, Sue?  or Monday, Bob? or back to Sunday, Doug? {Doug and Bob are ABC 7’s “Perfect Storm Team”–an ominously complex pun}).  The prognostication had, of course, begun long before December 23, when we drove north on our annual Christmas pilgrimage to Cheshire, CT.  All the media weather pundits wanted to talk about a white Christmas long before they could know anything reliable.  And as the date of Santa’s visit approached, those darn computer models just weren’t coming together.  Actually the storm, like the giant coastal lows that gave us three genuine blizzards last winter (a blizzard must by definition have not only snow but sustained winds of 35 mph or more with visibility of 1300 feet or less for a period of at least three hours), didn’t exist until the last minute.  As typically happens, it comes into being from the confluence of two other storm systems, whose energy is transferred to a new, single low just off the coast.

In what have been considered usual winters, the DC area is often on a north to south borderline between rain and snow, and that’s what makes forecasts tricky.  All too often we get ice, worse than snow and far worse than rain in its consequences.  There’s a thin layer of cold air on the surface, warmer air at altitude, and the storm’s rain freezes when it hits the ground.  A half-inch of that stuff paralyzes all vehicular traffic.  This year, as last, has brought with it plenty of cold air (see yesterday’s blog), so if there is precipitation, it is going to be snow.  Another border line, pertinent to coastal lows, now comes into play.  That’s the border between heavy snowfall and light, determined by how far offshore the coastal low sets up.  A relatively few miles can make a difference between digging out of deep snowfall and only seeing a few flakes.  So the forecasters, desperate to keep our interest, dying to please us with a snowy holiday and/or terrify us with the pale spectre of another Snowmageddon, and wanting to be correct, kept us on tenterhooks (a curious term, worth looking up) with the heavy storm/light storm, some storm/no storm, Sat/Sun/Mon alternatives.  They were still hard at it when we left for New England less than 48 hours before Christmas day on a cloudy but not threatening morning.

On Christmas Day, Saturday, we reveled with our hosts, Anne and Henry, and family from CT and from the DC area.  Checking back to see DC’s weather on the internet, we read National Weather Service forecasts for light to moderate snowfall from DC westward (1 to 5 inches), heavier amounts east of the Chesapeake Bay.  This was supposed to begin on Christmas night in DC, and the storm would develop and move up the coast over the following day.  Travel was anticipated to be very bad on Sunday and Sunday night along the I-95 corridor.  Some family decided to take off a little early and drive all the way back to DC on Christmas night to avoid being trapped until Monday or Tuesday.

Well, you know what happened.  Coastal New Jersey and New York, and most of New England, got socked.  Philadelphia got a bit of snow.  DC got none, barely a flurry.  There’ll be more fresh flakes in the House of Representatives in January than fell on the metro region last weekend.  It was a lot of hoopla over what turned out to be nothing.  One wonders if the weather people teased it out a bit for the ratings after they knew the truth.  But that’s probably uncharitable; such things are truly difficult to forecast.

We stayed in Connecticut, figuring that if worse came to worst, we could leave a day later than we planned, Tuesday instead of Monday.  On Sunday the snow really started to come down.  I went out with Henry when he walked the dog around the block.  The snow was falling, but no friends were calling “yoo-hoo.”  The wind was also blowing, a feature of our weather on the East Coast this season so far.  The remarkable thing, to us Virginians who are used to abysmal snow removal, was the efficiency with which the plows operated.  Booming down the street at about 30 mph, they must have made four passes while the snow was falling.  In the afternoon, as the accumulation totals crept up, Henry “mowed” the driveway and sidewalk to assure a relatively easy task in the morning, when Anne was scheduled for an early surgery.  As the daylight waned and the evening dark crept in, the wind kept howling, the snow kept falling, and we had a cozy evening of drinks and dinner.  By breakfast the snow was waning, and by 9:00 or so it stopped and a bit of sun peeked through (this is homage to the current forecast cuteness of “peeks” of sun; meteorologists don’t know the word is a verb).  So while the howling wind and blowing snow first convinced us to stay put, the great plowing and definite end of the snowfall made us brave enough to decide to keep to our schedule, while accepting that it would be a long, tiring trip.  We were on the road at 9:50.

We eschewed our usual route over the mountain road to Prospect, down into the Naugatuck River Valley to the Merritt Parkway.  Instead we took the flat Route 10 to the Wilbur Cross.  The road was OK, but not overly well plowed, with some snow on the surface.  But moderate speeds and anti-lock brakes on our Audi Quattro kept us in command.  The Wilbur Cross and Merritt were a mixed bag. In places there were only two tracks worn to the pavement, while in others two full lanes were plowed, treated, and melted.  Shockingly, there was almost no traffic.  For long stretches we could see perhaps one or two cars way ahead, and another in the rear view mirror.  Traffic moved sensibly but not frantically, except for when it got backed up behind a team of two  or three plows.  We noticed that the on and off ramps, here and on the Hutchinson River Parkway in NY, were terrible, and in some cases untouched even as we passed in the late morning!

Taking our usual shortcut through upper Manhattan from the Cross County to the GW Bridge, we could see that the snowfall in NYC had been heavy.  We stayed off the usual side streets of our route, keeping to Broadway all the way to Dyckman.   Cars had what looked like 15” to 18” snow hats as they drove around.  All along Dyckman Street the cars were (1) buried by the snowfall, PLUS (2) plowed in.  Slush had turned to ice in the low 20s temperatures.  Ouch!  We saw one humble citizen with a shovel approach a guy who was just starting to figure out how he was going to liberate his vehicle.  I bet he earned a quick $20 or more.

The sun came out at about this point, which was good for the melting (air temp was below freezing until Delaware) but horrible for the spray and blowing snow on the NJ Pike.  In fact, that blowing snow was the most striking feature of the trip.  The wind was at right angles to the pike, and wherever the right “channel” occurred, the wind would pile up 3” to 5“ of hard-packed snow on the road.  You’d have sworn that some mechanical wind machine was blasting fake snow over the ridges at the western edge of the road, it was so consistently intense and heavy.  The white clouds of blowing snow also obscured visibility.  No amount of plowing or treatment could keep ahead of it.  So our windshield got covered by a combination of salt spray from the trucks and cars, blowing snow, and my own cleaning spray.  All of this was backlit by the low, southerly sun, creating a bright glare that made visibility bad.  When we pulled in at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop it hadn’t been plowed, but people were in there 20 to 30 deep buying windshield cleaner.  I pride myself on having remembered to fill up that tank before we left home.

They were doing well clearing the Jersey Pike, so we stayed on it all the way as a known quantity, instead of shifting over to toll-free I-295 as we often do.  At one point we saw a fleet of huge cement mixer trucks rumbling up the northbound lanes with giant plows attached.  After about Exit 7, however, the snow depth started falling pretty fast.  At the Delaware River Bridge, in the Philadelphia area, there was only an inch or so on the ground, and by the Susquehanna River Bridge there was barely a trace.  The strong northwest winds made crossing that bridge a bit of an adventure, but we made it.  By then the road was dried off, and there wasn’t much snow for the wind to blow.  The rest of our trip back to DC was a cakewalk, until about 5 miles from the exit to Tyson’s Corner off the Beltway, slowed by a combination of rush hour and construction.  It took us over 30 minutes to do those last few miles.

And so we crawled in the car and listened to the DC radio news team (one a former TV weatherperson, downscaled by local staff cuts a couple of years ago) natter about how windy it had been.  Of course they did acknowledge that it had been nice to miss a blizzard, but it almost sounded as if they thought the DC metro area had been shortchanged.  So they were making a big deal about how severe and scary and dangerous the wind alone had been–some gusts hit 40 mph!  All weather, the WTOP dictum insists, must be at least borderline alarming and upsetting.  There was an undercurrent of resentment and disappointment that the region had been denied a new Snowmageddon, and they the chance to talk about some actually dangerous, unsettling weather.  “OOOhhh, it was windy!  Head for the tornado cellar!”

The cats were glad to see us when we drove in about 7½ hours after leaving Cheshire.  They reported that the electricity never went out, and that they had slept through that windiness without being perturbed in the least.  Feline sanity.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

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