The 1993 Storm of the Century

A Historical Perspective

GOES-7 color enhanced IR satellite image; March 13, 1993. NOAA

The blizzard of March 12-14, 1993 remains one of the worst U.S. snowstorms since the Great Blizzard of 1888. And it's no surprise, considering that the storm stretched from Cuba to Nova Scotia, Canada, affected 100 million people across 26 states, and caused $6.65 billion in damages. By storm's end, 310 fatalities had been reported--more than three times the number of lives lost during Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo combined.

Storm Origin and Track

On the morning of March 11, a strong ridge of high pressure sat just offshore the U.S. west coast. Its position oriented the jet stream so that it plunged south out of the Arctic, allowing unseasonably cold air to flow into the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, a low pressure system was developing near Brownsville, TX. Fed by a number of upper air disturbances, energy from jet stream winds, and moisture from the north central Gulf of Mexico, the low began to rapidly strengthen.

The storm's center traveled near Tallahassee, FL, in the pre-dawn hours of March 13. It continued north-northeastward, centering over southern Georgia near mid-day and over New England that evening. Near midnight, the storm deepened to a central pressure of 960 mb while over the Chesapeake Bay area. That's the equivalent pressure of a Category 3 hurricane!

Storm Impacts

As a result of heavy snow and high winds, most cities across the Eastern Seaboard shut down, or were completely inaccessible for days.

Because of such societal impacts, this storm has been assigned the highest rank of "extreme" on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS).

Along the Gulf of Mexico:
  • The Florida panhandle received up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) of snow
  • A squall line out ahead of the cold front caused a powerful derecho (straight-line windstorm) with gusts in excess of 100 mph (160 km/h) felt down to Havana, Cuba
  • A Supercell spawned 11 tornadoes across the Sunshine State, ranging from F0 to F2 in intensity
  • A 12-foot (3.7 m) storm surge caused flooding along the coasts of western Florida and northern Cuba
In the South:
  • Accumulations ranged from 3-5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m)
  • Snow drifts of up to 15 feet (4.6 m) were reported at Mount Mitchell, NC
  • Rare convective elements such as lightning, thundersnow, and snowfall rates of 2-4 inches (5.1 to 10.2 cm) per hour were experienced
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents were left without electricity for up to a week
In the Northeast & Canada:
  • Accumulations ranged from 15-45 inches (38.1 cm to 1.1m)
  • Syracuse, NY, broke five of its snowfall records, including: 24-hr snowfall, maximum daily snowfalls for March 13 and 14, snowiest March, and snowiest season
  • With the storm's passage, New Brunswick, Canada, reported a 45 °F (7 °C) temperature drop within 18 hours

Forecasting Success

National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists first noticed signs that a fierce winter storm was brewing during the preceding week. Due to recent advances in computer forecast models (including the use of ensemble forecasts), they were able to accurately forecast and issue storm warnings two days in advance of the storm's arrival. This was the first time the NWS forecasted a storm of this magnitude and did so with several days' lead time.

But despite warnings that a "big one" was on the way, public response was one of disbelief. The weather preceding the blizzard was unseasonably mild, and didn't support the news that a winter storm of historic proportions was imminent.

Record Numbers

The Blizzard of 1993 broke dozens of records of its time, including over 60 record lows. The "top fives" for U.S. snowfall, temperature, and wind gusts are listed here:

Snow Totals:
  1. 56 inches (142.2 cm) on Mount LeConte, TN
  2. 50 inches (127 cm) on Mount Mitchell, NC
  3. 44 inches (111.8 cm) at Snowshoe, WV
  4. 43 inches (109.2 cm) at Syracuse, NY
  5. 36 inches (91.4 cm) at Latrobe, PA
Minimum Temperatures:
  1. -12 °F (-24.4 °C) in Burlington, VT and Caribou, ME
  2. -11 °F (-23.9 °C) in Syracuse, NY
  3. -10 °F (-23.3 °C) on Mount LeConte, TN
  4. -5 °F (-20.6 °C) in Elkins, WV
  5. -4 °F (-20 °C) in Waynesville, NC and Rochester, NY
Wind Gusts:
  1. 144 mph (231.7 km/h) on Mount Washington, NH
  2. 109 mph (175.4 km/h) at Dry Tortugas, FL (Key West)
  3. 101 mph (162.5 km/h) on Flattop Mountain, NC
  4. 98 mph (157.7 km/h) at South Timbalier, LA
  5. 92 mph (148.1 km/h) on South Marsh Island, LA