The future of large snowstorms in the Midstate


Climate simulations are being used to study changes in snowstorm frequency and intensity...

A good old-fashioned snowstorm is usually not as hard to come by as it has been this year.

But the ‘big ones’ are indeed rare. Let’s look at the stats.

The 2010-2019 decade brought three of our top 20 historic storms with February 2010 featuring two plow-busting storms.

Between February 5-6, 2010, 18 inches of heavy snow slammed the Midstate, followed by another 15.7 inches of snow on February 9-10.

That series of storms is now famously remembered as Snowmageddon, true winter wrath that snarled much of the Mid-Atlantic.

Later in the decade, on January 22- 23, 2016, the Midstate experienced its biggest snowstorm in recorded history, an astonishing 30 inches of snow that left people digging out for weeks.

Large snowstorms are rare, and to have three in one decade has only happened two other times since 1888: the 1960s, with four top 20 storms, and the 1990s, with three top 20 storms.

Thirteen of the top 20 snowstorms for Harrisburg have all occurred after 1961. Is there a trend? Penn State researchers are using climate simulations to study snowstorms.

“We did see this dramatic tilting towards more intense storms,” said Colin Zarzycki, assistant professor of meteorology at Penn State University. “In the future, when we do get a snowstorm, we expect it to be more intense relative to more of these nuisances type storms.”

Harrisburg’s snowfall records show a seasonal decline in total snow. Overall, future projections also show total seasonal snow decreasing for central Pennsylvania.

“Big picture seems to be that, on average, we are going to be losing snowfall here in the northeastern U.S., but these big impactful storms that we maybe see once a year, once every few years aren’t really going away any time soon,” Zarzycki said.

But when our big coastal storms develop, their impact will be felt, especially nor’easters, which can cause major safety concerns with travel and business heavy affected.

Zarzycki talked about the future of nor’easters.

“What we call major nor’easter-type systems, that is projected to remain fairly persistent at the levels we have today,” he said.

Winters with fewer snowstorms like this year could become more common. Rain and mixed precipitation could also be more frequent than snow. But when the bigger storms hit, that is when the snow could pile up, to even record levels.

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