Can Big Snow Happen in February? You Bet!
Many snow enthusiasts across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are chomping at the bit for a major winter storm. Heading into February there may be a feeling that winter is on the downswing, but not so fast! Technically speaking, we have passed the halfway point in meteorological winter (which spans from December 1st through March 1st), however, it is worth noting that February is the snowiest month on average for many locations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Let’s take a closer look at why February can be the snowiest month of the winter. Naturally, large winter storms heavily influence monthly averages. Sparing the complex atmospheric processes that go into the development of blockbuster winter storms, at their core, winter storms tend to form along the boundary of warm and cold air masses. At this point during winter, arctic air typically sets up across much of the Midwest. Relatively warmer air resides just off the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastlines due to the warmer ocean waters. So a natural thermal boundary exists along the eastern seaboard, yielding a potential region for development and track for winter storms. This track is illustrated in the picture below (courtesy of the NCDC) which shows locations where February is the snowiest month on average.
Need more convincing that big storms can happen in February? Here are several examples…
Many people in the Mid-Atlantic will long remember the stretch in early to mid-February of 2010. A strong low pressure system dropped a substantial swath of 20 - 30 inches of snow across portions south-central Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, the majority of Delaware and Maryland, and northern Virginia from February 5 – 6th. Just a couple of days later on February 9 – 10th, another big snowstorm dumped an additional 10 - 20 inches of snow over many of the same areas! Just a remarkable one – two punch of storms which left Baltimore with up to 36 inches on the ground!
Going further back in history, February 10 – 12th, 1983 marked a storm which pummeled DC through Boston with 10 – 20+ inches of snow, however, President’s Day seems to be a “hot” spot for big storms. Back on February 18 – 19th, 1979 a storm produced 10 - 20 inches of snow across northern Virginia, Maryland, southern Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey. Highest totals were seen in Maryland where amounts exceeded two feet! On February 15 – 17th, 2003 another strong nor’easter often known as “President’s Day II,” brought a swath of 15 - 30 inches along the I-95 corridor. Baltimore and Boston had snow accumulations that exceeded 24 inches, with blizzard warnings posted for Boston.
Speaking of New England, who can forget the Blizzard of ’78 on February 5 – 7th that dropped 20 – 30+ inches of snow from Boston into Rhode Island? Some places in Rhode Island even reported over 40 inches (picture at the top)! Not to mention hurricane force wind gusts to 80+ mph, which drifted snow up to 10 - 15 feet high! Even though New England was hardest hit, amounts of 10 – 20 inches fell through PA and NJ and even into Delaware.
Blizzard of '78 which brought extreme wind and snow to the Northeast. - NOAA Image
Although the storms mentioned up to this point have been focused on the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, the Midwest can also see major winter storms in February. Look back no further than to 2011 when a potent winter storm created blizzard conditions and produced 10 - 20” of snow (locally higher amounts) across northern and western portions of Illinois. This storm caused an estimated 1.8 billion worth of damage and had major travel implications. Roughly 1300 flights were cancelled at O’Hare and Midway Airports along with Lake Shore Drive in Chicago completely shut down by heavy snow and wind.
The main takeaway here is that although we have passed the halfway point of winter (meteorologically speaking), February has produced some major winter storms in the past. Try not to get discouraged by the lack of major storms at this point of winter as some of the largest and most potent winter storms arrive during February.