Newark loses record it probably never wanted anyway

By Len Melisurgo | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 05, 2016

It's now official: The monster blizzard of January 2016 will not go down in the record books as the biggest snowstorm in Newark history.

Turns out it was actually the third-biggest snowfall ever recorded in New Jersey's largest city.

The National Weather Service recently concluded a review of the snowfall measurement procedures at its climate monitoring station at Newark Liberty International Airport and confirmed that weather contractors working for the FAA had improperly measured the snow at 28.1 inches after the January blizzard. That would have been an all-time city record.

The "snow measurement team" that conducted the review — meteorologists from the weather service's New York regional office and climate experts from the office of New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson at Rutgers University — determined the actual amount of snow that fell at the airport during the blizzard was 24.5 inches.

With this determination, the top snowfall on record in Newark is once again the big blizzard of January 1996, which clobbered the city with 27.8 inches of snow. The second biggest is 26.7 inches from a snowstorm in late December 1947. The January 2016 blizzard melted down to third place.

"The team found that the observations at Newark Airport were taken each hour on a snowboard by the contract weather observers during the storm, with the snowboard being cleared hourly," the weather service said in a statement on June 24. "National Weather Service Guidelines for snow measurements call for clearing the snowboard every six hours."

Hourly measurements tend to result in higher snowfall readings because piles of snow usually get compacted, shrinking slightly in height, over several hours. So, six-hour measurements are considered more accurate than one-hour measurements.

Tim Morrin, a weather service representative who served on the snow review team, said the team established the new snowfall total for Newark airport by analyzing reliable snowfall data from other weather stations in the Newark region and also by checking the liquid equivalent of the snow that fell into the airport's precipitation gauge.

Meteorologists use a formula to estimate the amount of frozen precipitation based on the volume of melted liquid, Morrin said. Snowstorms with a lot of moisture tend to have a 10-1 ratio, which equates to 10 inches of snow for every inch of liquid that falls from the sky.

Morrin said the January 2016 blizzard had a slightly higher ratio because the snow was a little drier. So, based on the liquid measurement in Newark and the snowfall measurements in neighboring sites, the snow team ruled 24.5 inches was the most accurate depth of the Newark snow.

Morrin noted that snow measuring "is certainly not an exact science," but he said it is vital for weather observers to follow the strict guidelines that have been established by the National Weather Service for consistency and accurate record-keeping.

In the case of Newark airport's weather contractors, there was what Morrin called "a slight breach in operation etiquette." 

The fact that the contractors took snow measurements every hour was not improper, because those numbers are needed for snow removal efforts on the airport's runways, he noted. What was improper, he said, was using those hourly numbers to determine the total snow accumulation.

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