Worst winter ever?

A car has been covered in snow for days on Powelton Avenue near King Street in Philadelphia. More arctic temperatures are due this week, and snow is possible for Tuesday and/or Wednesday.
A car has been covered in snow for days on Powelton Avenue near King Street in Philadelphia. More arctic temperatures are due this week, and snow is possible for Tuesday and/or Wednesday.
Posted: February 26, 2014

PHILADELPHIA - The mountainous, blackening snow piles, record power outages, winter-strafed roadbeds, and legions of defeated trees.

All argue for the singular ferocity of the winter of 2013-14.

Dr. Theodore A. Christopher has witnessed something else, and if the weather community isn't ready to rank this season on the severity scale, he is.

"This is the worst," said Christopher, the director of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he has worked for 30 years. "No question."

Christopher ranks it ahead of even the winters of 2009-10 and 1995-96, which were snowier, and 1993-94, which was icier.

He has seen no end to emergency-room visits from automobile-accident victims, slip-and-fall episodes, people with broken bones.

"There's been nonstop orthopedic injuries," he said. "It seems every three or four days there's a major snowstorm."

Well, not quite. But by any measure, if not No. 1, this season qualifies as one of the most disruptive winters in the 130-year period of record in Philadelphia. The 58.4 inches of snow - a total that would reach to Napoleon's lips or eyebrows, depending on the historical account one accepts - officially ranks at No. 3. (The winter of 1898-99, No. 4, probably deserves consideration, and if you have personal memories, please contact us immediately.)

That total doesn't include the mammoth ice-lacquering of Feb. 5 that constituted the most devastating event of the season.

And this one isn't over: Temperatures in the 50s should gently erode more of the snowpack remnants Sunday, but more Arctic air is due to pour in this week, with snow possible Tuesday and/or Wednesday. At least that will put off any threat of flooding from rapid melting.

In short, those darkening mounds and graying meringues of snow might be here until St. Patrick's Day, if not the equinox.

One upside: The uglier it gets, the better it melts, points out Colorado climatologist Nolan Doesken, an expert in snowmelt. Darker surfaces draw heat better than lighter ones.

"I use the term relentless," said Eugene Blaum, the veteran Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman. He isn't the only one.

This all started with a foreboding suddenness when a surprise, nationally televised whiteout snowfall blitzed South Philadelphia, where the Eagles were hosting the Detroit Lions, and the rest of the region. By 7 p.m. on that day, Dec. 8, almost two weeks before the official start of winter, more snow had fallen in eight hours than in all of last season, and twice as much as the season before.

That was the first of four snowfalls of 8 inches or more; never had Philadelphia recorded more than three storms of 6 inches or better in a single season, according to National Weather Service records.

300 percent

The snow has kept coming, focusing its intensity along either side of the Delaware River corridor, as snow bands have wrung out staggeringly rapid accumulations over the city and adjacent South Jersey, where towns have been running out of salt.

Strangely, while snowfall has been above normal throughout the East, it has been over the top in the Philadelphia and New York City areas, well over 300 percent of normal in Philadelphia.

Around here, when in doubt, it has snowed, almost as though the atmosphere were primed.

"It can't help itself," said Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist in charge of the weather service office in Mount Holly.

What's more, the snow totals usually have ended up in the higher range of the forecasts, if not higher, noted Nick Martino, PennDot maintenance director for the Philadelphia region, with one notable exception.

The forecast for Feb. 5 called for 1 to 3 inches of snow followed by freezing rain. The snow never showed. The rain did, and conspiring with the hefty remnants of the heavy snows of Feb. 3, resulted in a disaster, especially for residents of the Pennsylvania counties outside Philadelphia. In all, 715,000 would lose power. Entire towns, including Malvern, Chester County, lost power for three days.

Peco Energy has set a record for winter outages this season, with 822,048, according to spokesman Ben Armstrong, passing the 1993-94 total of 640,424.

PennDot set a new standard for salt, with 157,815 tons used as of Friday in the Philadelphia region, well surpassing the 142,738 of 2009-10 and the 101,185 of 1995-96.

Salt supplies have reached crisis levels throughout the region. "We're a storm away from having nothing," said Joe Dee, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which has spread 442,000 tons this season, compared with 258,000 last winter. More salt is on the way - and so is more winter.

Bad timing

"It seems like we're out there every other day," said PennDot's Martino, adding, "It's not like we're taking care of nuisance storms."

The timing of the havoc has been uncannily bad, bedeviling workdays, wrecking rush hours. The Dec. 8 storm came on a Sunday, but it shut down untreated roads on what should have been a bustling Christmas-shopping day.

For numbers of days on which an inch or more of snow has fallen, 12, this season now is tied for 1977-78 for the most since the winter of 1917-18, said Tony Gigi, meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Mount Holly.

For severity, Gigi still favors 1993-94, which featured a perhaps unprecedented sequence of ice storms and one of the coldest outbreaks in the period of record. However, he notes, this one actually is running colder, and snow totals are more than double that winter's.

Dr. Michael Goodyear, Christopher's counterpart at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, said along with post-snow back injuries and chest-pain complaints, his emergency department has treated "several" patients for frostbite, something he can't recall happening.

"It's been crazy," said Christopher, adding that he had one regret:

"I should have bought a snowblower."


Cold, Hard Facts

Here is a look at four of our worst recent winter wonderlands:

*Projected through Feb. 28 SOURCE: National Weather Service and Pa. Dept. of Transportation


twood@phillynews.com

610-313-8210

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