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We may want to turn page on winter, but big storms not unusual in March

Sunday, March 2, 2014
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Payge Lecakes, 6, left, and her sister Brynn, 4, get a push from their sister Kyra, 8, while swinging in their Niskayuna backyard on March 17, 2007.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Payge Lecakes, 6, left, and her sister Brynn, 4, get a push from their sister Kyra, 8, while swinging in their Niskayuna backyard on March 17, 2007.

Early March, and some people may have started the countdown to spring.

Others say not to count out winter. Spring may be only 18 days away, but weather watchers say the month famous for lions, lambs and shamrocks is also known for late-season snowstorms.

“The greatest snowstorm in the Albany area was in March, the blizzard of 1888,” said George Maglaras, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany. “We had the big March blizzard in 1993.”

Baseball players may be swinging in televised spring training games and birds may be singing in backyard trees, but Maglaras would not consider them true signs of spring. There are too many numbers that favor winter right now.

“The average snowfall for March doesn’t drop off that much from February,” he said. “For the period from 1981 to 2010, there was an average 12.4 inches for February. March only dropped to 10.2 inches on average.”

January, he added, has been the region’s snowiest month, with a 17.6 average snowfall during the past 30 years.

People can’t be blamed for looking forward to green grass and crocus sprouts. Just over 64 inches of snow have fallen this winter season, 5 inches over the 59.2 inches the Capital Region normally receives. Weather forecasters say about 28 inches of snow fell in February — more than the 27.3 inches of total snowfall that fell during the 2012-13 winter season.

Historians remember the snowiest March, in 1888. Anyone older than 25 remembers the 1993 event.

The 1888 storm began just before noon on Sunday, March 11. Snowfall continued through the night. Winds stirred up the snowflakes and the harsh weather continued through midweek. When the snow finally stopped, 46.7 inches were on the ground and drifts of up to 20 feet high were reported.

Historians say people were snowed into their homes. Horses had trouble plowing through the winter excess. Milk and coal deliveries were postponed for almost a week as roads were cleared.

The 1993 storm also was a weekend affair. Snow began on Saturday, March 13, and kept falling into Sunday. By Sunday afternoon, people were shoveling and blowing 26.6 inches of snow away from their walks and driveways. Albany’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled. Basketball games, weddings and flower shows were canceled or postponed.

Other March storms are closer to memory. Last March 19, as a feeble winter neared its conclusion, Capital Region communities were covered with between 4 and 12 inches of snow. And on Feb. 29 and March 1, 2012, between 8 and 13 inches of snow fell in the area — the biggest snowstorm of the 2011-12 winter season. In 2007, 16.4 inches fell in Albany on March 17, once again canceling the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“It doesn’t stick around long,” Maglaras said of March snows. “The sun angle is very high now. Even if it stays colder after the snowstorm, the sun is very strong. That alone will take away a lot of snow fairly quickly. The other thing is the average temperatures just aren’t as cold as they are in January and February. And the days, by the middle of March, are three hours longer than they were at the end of December.”

Wet and heavy

People who know March snowstorms know moist, heavy precipitation. That’s because meteorologists say the Gulf Stream becomes more active in late winter and early spring. Low pressure systems will develop, picking up plenty of moisture from the Gulf. These systems ride up the coast and if these moist carriers meet high pressure systems above Canada — that filter cold air down — the cold air will change the moisture to snow. And it will be a moist, heavy snow.

Neil Stuart, also a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said warmer weather in the South and colder weather in the North launches a battle between seasons. “You’ve got spring trying to win the battle but winter is still holding on because you have these really big storms,” Stuart said. “Eventually, spring has to win out. . . . In a nutshell, the warming of the earth causes the jet stream to become more active, fueling bigger and more frequent storms.”

Meteorologists say March storms, because of the weight that comes with the snow, can affect power lines and cause outages. That’s one reason some people are still prepared for winter.

Staying prepared

Mike Aragosa, a co-owner at Manny’s True Value Hardware Store on Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady, recently received 36 pallets packed with rock salt.

“I’m going to be prepared when everybody else isn’t,” he said, adding he doesn’t consider winter over until early April.

Snow rakes for roof snow and windshield de-icer are still in stock at Manny’s. Snow shovels are still on display, even though most people who have been battling winter purchased their traditional weapons for the heavy snows of December.

“I still see people who need them,” Aragosa said. “They break, they fall off the backs of trucks.”

Tim Bachand, owner of Burnt Hills Hardware in Glenville, said he stocks snow shovels all year. “Lawn and garden guys use them for picking up bark chips,” he said.

Like Aragosa, he considers March a winter month — all 31 days.

“Every year is different,” he said. “But talking to my customers, there’s that feeling that I think we’re going to get hammered a couple more times. I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”

In Niskayuna, trucks keep their snow plows until the first week of April. Highway superintendent Frank Gavin said when winter has lingered into late March and beyond, spring maintenance work has begun as late as mid-April. “The last couple years, we’ve been kind of lucky,” Gavin said. “Not this year. Not with 3 feet of frost in the ground.”

Highway department employees are on 24-hour call throughout March, just in case a formidable snowfall is forecast.

“We’ve had storms the first, second week of April,” Gavin said. “Not a lot, but March and April can bring heavy snow.”

 
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