The Blizzard of '88 -- and the Lingering Spring of '12

Winter never came this winter and spring has never ended.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, Mar 23, 2012  |  Updated 1:29 PM EDT
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The Blizzard of '88 -- and the Lingering Spring of '12

Snow piled up high on the corner of 63rd Street and Third Avenue during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

The great English poet, Percy Shelley, wrote: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Only this year winter never came and we’ve had a kind of spring since early January.

Temperatures have been from 20 to 30 degrees above average in parts of the east coast. It’s particularly striking at this time of year because March is the anniversary of what’s been called The Great Blizzard of 1888.  This was a blinding snowstorm that lives in New York’s memory as the greatest ever.

The storm hit New York in mid-March, 1888 when parts of the east coast were covered with 40 inches of snow. It was one of the most severe blizzards in American history.

When the storm first struck on March 11, temperatures were mild and a light rain began to fall. Then the rains became torrential and the temperature fell. By March 12th, the rains had changed to heavy snow. The city was buried in drifts of up to 30 feet deep as winds raged and 400 people lost their lives on the east coast, about 200 in New York City. The coast was paralyzed from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Telephone and telegraph lines went down, cutting off communications between major cities.

Ice formed on the East River and many people were able to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan. As the Times of March 13 reported: “Before the day had well advanced, every horse car and elevated railroad train in this city had stopped running; the streets were almost impassable to men or horses by reason of the huge masses of drifting snow…..the mails were stopped and every variety of business dependent on motion or locomotion was stopped.”

I asked Janice Huff, chief meteorologist for NBC 4 New York, about this year’s weather in the New York area. “it’s a most unusual situation,” she said. “It’s been most warm here while, in Europe, they’re having one of their coldest winters. Other strange things have been happening. Thus, it hit 85 degrees in South Dakota the other day. And there have been strange ups and downs everywhere.”

Ms. Huff says it all has much to do with the jet stream. The jet stream has a great effect on weather and, when it descends, wintry weather may follow. But this year the jet stream kept away from New York, staying way up in Canada. Why? “It’s a tough question to answer.” Could it be the result of global warming? There’s no convincing evidence of that.

There were other factors, the wise but modest forecaster added, including the fact that water in the Pacific was cooler than usual and, in the Arctic, other changes in the usual weather pattern occurred.

It all boils down to the fact that predicting the weather is still often an inexact science. And we can still have a non-wintry winter and a seemingly never-ending spring.

Not to say we could not have a blizzard in August or a heat wave in December.

But I wouldn’t bet on anything.

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