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Record-Breaking Snowfall Dumps on East Coast

Climate

By Bob Henson

A ferocious, long-lasting winter storm took its parting swipes at the Eastern Seaboard on Saturday night, leaving in its wake a pile of snowbound cities and shattered records. Millions of people in the nation's most densely populated urban corridor saw snowfall amounts that matched or exceeded the largest amounts observed in more than a hundred years of recordkeeping. It's surprisingly difficult to measure snow in an accurate and consistent way, so you should keep a mental asterisk pinned to the statistics you'll be seeing. Nevertheless, there is no question that this nor'easter, dubbed Winter Storm Jonas by the Weather Channel, was one for the ages—among the most powerful and far-reaching in regional history.

Estimated snowfall totals from Winter Storm Jonas for the period Jan. 21-23. Photo credit: The Weather Channel

A Sheaf of 24-Hour and Storm-Total Records

Even as the last flakes were flying on Saturday night, a number of sites with century-plus weather histories had already notched the most snowfall ever recorded for a single storm and/or the most ever measured in a 24-hour period. Here's a sample of preliminary data through Sunday morning. (Thanks to Alex Lamers, National Weather Service (NWS)/Tallahassee, for digging up some hard-to-find data on previous record storm totals in the New York City area). Note that the readings below generally pertain to snowfall measurements taken during the storm and added together, with a snow measuring board (snowboard) cleared off between each reading. The final snow depth or the amount you'd measure by sticking a ruler (or yardstick) in the snow at the end of the storm, would normally be a bit less than the amounts shown below, because of the more recent snow on top compressing the lower, earlier layers. Decades ago, snowboards were used less frequently or were cleared less often when used, which means that some past storms would yield higher snow totals if measured with today's standard techniques.

New York, New York (Central Park)

  • Calendar-day total: 26.6" (old record 24.1" on Feb. 12, 2006)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 26.8" (record 26.9" on Feb. 11-12, 2006)

New York, New York (LaGuardia)

  • Calendar-day total: 27.9" (old record 23.3" on Feb. 12, 2006)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 27.9" (old record 25.4" on Feb. 11-12, 2006)

New York, New York (Kennedy):

  • Calendar-day total: 30.3" (old record 24.1" on Feb. 12, 2006)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 30.5" (old record 26.8" on Feb. 16-18 2003)

Newark, New Jersey:

  • Calendar-day total: 27.5" (old record 25.9" on Dec. 26, 1947)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 27.9" (old record 27.8" on Jan. 7-8, 1996)

Allentown, Pennsylvania

  • Calendar-day total: 30.2" (old record 24.0" on Feb. 11, 1983)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 31.9" (old record 25.6" on Jan. 7-8, 1996)

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

  • Calendar-day total: 26.4" (old record 24.0" on Feb. 11, 1983)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 30.2" (old record 25.0" on Feb. 12-13, 1983)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:

  • Calendar-day total: 19.4" (record 27.6 on Jan. 7, 1996)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 22.4" (record 31.0" on Jan. 6-8, 1996)

Baltimore, Maryland (Baltimore-Washington Airport and earlier sites):

  • Calendar-day total: 25.5" (old record 23.3" on Jan. 28, 1922)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 29.2" (old record 26.8" on Feb. 16-18, 2003)

Washington, DC (Dulles)

  • Calendar-day total: 22.1" (record 22.5" on Feb. 11, 1983)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 29.3" (record 32.4" on Feb. 5-6, 2010)

Washington, DC (National Airport and earlier sites):

  • Calendar-day total: 11.3" (record 21.0" on Jan. 28, 1922)
  • Storm total through Sunday a.m.: 17.8" (record 28.0" on Jan. 27-29, 1922)

How Widespread Was the Snow?

  • This was the first storm on record to dump at least 24" of snow in both Baltimore and New York City, according to weather.com.
  • Snowflakes fell as far south as the Florida Panhandle on Friday night and more than a foot of snow fell as far north as Massachusetts, giving this remarkable storm a north-to-south reach reminiscent of the even-more-sprawling Storm of the Century in March 1993.

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Controversy in Washington, Snowfall-Style

As noted by Capital Weather Gang's Angela Fritz, the readings at Washington National through Saturday evening struck many as being oddly low compared to neighboring reports, especially toward the north and west. The NWS plans to review the DCA snow reports, which were gathered by contractors for the Federal Aviation Administration, a common practice at many airport locations. In a follow-up story on Sunday, Capital Weather Gang reported that the contractors at DCA had improvised and interpolated from snow-depth measurements after the on-site snowboard could not be found beneath the snow.

The Weather Underground almanac for Saturday at DCA shows that at 4:52 p.m. ET, Washington National reported 18" of snow on ground (rounded to the nearest inch), with 1" having fallen in the previous hour. Snow continued at DCA through midnight; however, the visibility jumped from just 1/16 mile at 4:52 p.m. to much higher values after that point (1/2 mile at 5:39 p.m. and 1.75 mile at 6:49 p.m.), which is consistent with snowfall becoming much lighter.

On Sunday morning, CoCoRaHS reports of snowfall on the ground were all 20" or greater in the District and the adjoining western and northern suburban counties of Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. In the District itself, a snow depth of 22" was reported at the White House CoCoRaHS station, about 4 miles north of the airport and the closest station to DCA that filed a report on Sunday morning. Amounts were substantially lower just east and south of the District, in Prince George's County, Maryland and beyond, although very few of these were close to DCA. A snow-depth report of 16" came in from the vicinity of Fort Washington, about 8 miles south of DCA. To me, the CoCoRaHS data on snow depth imply that the DCA observations of total snowfall could be slightly on the low side but not too far out of line. It will be fascinating to see what the NWS concludes. Perhaps the bigger question is whether reports from DCA should be considered representative of the District, given that snowfalls are often significantly heavier as you go north and west.

Record Storm Tides Along the Southern New Jersey and Northern Delaware Coast

While most eyes were peeled on the big cities of the Northeast, coastal residents on either side of the Delaware Bay had to deal with major coastal flooding, especially during Saturday morning's high tide. Storm-related surges of 4 to 5 feet were common across northern Delaware and southern New Jersey. These are close to the highest values one would expect in any nor'easter. To make matters worse, the full moon added about a foot to the normal morning high tide. The resulting storm tide (the amount over the typical low tide or mean low low water, including both astronomical and storm-related effects) hit a record 9.27 feet at Lewes, Delaware, beating the 9.20 feet observed in the nor'easter of March 6, 1962. Cape May and Stone Harbor, New Jersey, both saw record storm tides that exceeded the values observed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Floodwaters poured into Stone Harbor in dramatic fashion on Saturday morning.

North of Atlantic City, the storm surge fell far short of the values observed during Sandy. The circulation around Sandy (which made landfall near Atlantic City) drove far larger storm surges of 10 feet or more into the coasts and bays of northern New Jersey and New York, resulting in storm tides as high as 15 feet. Moreover, Sandy's huge waves—much bigger than those from Jonas—added greatly to the impact of the storm surge throughout the region. “Waves can contribute 50 percent or more to the coastal flooding along the open coastline and these are not included in storm tide measurements," Michael Lowry (The Weather Channel), said.

Widespread Power Outages

As of Saturday, more than 200,000 homes and businesses had lost power due to Jonas, although outages in the blizzard-socked areas were not nearly as widespread as had been feared. North Carolina was especially hard-hit by power losses due to a glaze of freezing rain that fell early in the storm, topped by a coating of snow.

Hats Off to the Computer Models and NWS Forecasts

One can't help but be impressed by the persistence and accuracy of the leading forecast models in predicting near-record snowfall amounts for days on end ahead of the arrival of Jonas. Early in the week, the GFS and ECMWF models correctly zeroed in on Maryland, including Washington, DC, as a focal point for heavy snow around Friday/Saturday. This gave local forecasters the confidence to issue a blizzard watch on Wednesday morning, two full days ahead of the storm's arrival. (The massive traffic tie-ups in the DC area on Wednesday evening were the result of a mere half-inch of snow from a separate storm that preceded Jonas, a vivid reminder that even minor-seeming winter weather events need to be taken seriously in urban areas.)

New York was a tougher forecast nut to crack. Models agreed that there would be a sharp cut-off to the northern edge of heavy snow, a feature common in nor'easters, but they disagreed on where that northern edge would fall. As early as Wednesday, the NAM model was projecting huge weekend snowfall amounts in the New York area, while the GFS and ECMWF models tended to hold the heavy snow just south of New York, projecting only a few inches at best for the Big Apple. Forecasters at the National Weather Service's local office in Upton, New York, wisely issued a prediction of 8-12" of snowfall and a blizzard watch on Thursday, just as blizzard warnings were being hoisted from Washington, DC to Philadelphia. In New York, this was the perfect situation for a watch, which is intended to alert the public that a particular outcome is possible but not guaranteed. As other models joined the NAM bandwagon on Friday, the blizzard watch for New York City was upgraded to a warning, which provided enough advance notice for city dwellers to stock up on provisions and city planners to prepare for the worst.

Figure 6. Low-, mid- and high-end snowfall amounts (in inches--see legend at top) projected for the region around New York City as of 2 p.m. EST Thursday, Jan. 21 for the period from 1 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Sunday. The values at New York City ranged from around 2" at the low end to 20" at the high end.

Figure 7. Analysis of surface pressure and winds at 3 p.m. EST Saturday, Jan. 23, overlaid with radar returns from 3:15 p.m. EST. An occluded front (not shown) extends from the strong surface low just east of the Delmarva Peninsula to a secondary low extending off the east edge of the map. Photo credit: NOAA Storm Prediction Center.

The storm ended up occluding in classic fashion, meaning that its main coastal surface low hung back while jet-stream energy carved out an occluded front extending northeastward just off the East Coast (see Figure 7). This evolution led to prime snowmaking conditions in a region of frontal formation aloft called a deformation zone that set up inland from the surface front, putting the heavy snow along and just northwest of the urban corridor. (Here's an NWS explanation of deformation zones.)

Figure 8. A view of the sharp northern edge to snowfall across Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut, captured by the high-resolution MODIS satellite on Sunday morning, Jan. 24. Photo credit: NASA (via Stu Ostro, TWC)

Figure 9. The sharp northern edge to heavy snow extended into central Pennsylvania. Photo credit: NWS/Binghamton, NY (and a h/t to Stu Ostro, The Weather Channel)

Weather Underground blogger Steve Gregory, like many others, saw the classic nature of this setup emerging in the NAM and GFS models on Friday, although even then he wasn't totally convinced. “Whenever a storm occludes out, it slows down and is pulled closer to the upper low (500 mb) and the storm track. Most importantly the deformation zone was then able to spiral further outward (northward) by 100-150 nautical miles, which brought very heavy snow bands into the New York City/Long Island/Cape Cod region," Steve told me in an email. “This should not have been a surprise to me."

The Outer Edge Strikes Again

Many New Yorkers remember the storm of late January 2015, when forecasters called for as much as 3 feet of snow in New York City, far more than actually fell there. Though that forecast might seem like a bust, the prediction of huge snows over much larger areas of eastern Long Island and southern New England actually proved correct. Again, the problem was a sharp cutoff to the heavy snow on the storm's outer edge, with models disagreeing on whether that edge would end up west or east of New York City. NWS forecasters went big, then held off on dialing back the forecasts until it was abundantly clear that New York City would escape the worst.

It's crucial that residents, businesses and local government understand that some storms have a wider range of uncertainty than others at a given location. The experimental probabilistic guidance for snowfall that was posted on the home page of the NWS/New York office (see Figure 6) helped provide that sense. On Friday, it showed a low-end outcome of just an inch, but a high-end outcome of around two feet. I look forward to seeing this valuable tool become operational across the nation as soon as possible.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

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