Story of an Illegal Snowstorm

| March 20, 2008 @ 11:35 am | 1 Reply

We call it illegal because it was not forecast.

All rain, we thought.

We were wrong, we “wuz robbed!”

It had never snowed in Birmingham in April. We assumed the very late snow of March 25, 1924, when Birmingham got 7 inches, would always hold the record of the latest snow on record.

Again, we were wrong.

The night of April 2 and the morning of April 3, 1987 was to be an all rain event. But, lurking in the middle of the night, a low-pressure area grew stronger. It was a large slow-moving low. This gave it time to pull in colder than expected air on its north and NE quadrant. In Birmingham, the temperature at 850 millibars, about 5,000 feet, dropped to 32 or lower, enough to change the rain to snow.

It was a situation where a difference of plus or minus 1 or 2 degrees at the crucial condensation level could mean all rain or all snow.

And, did it snow!

In the early morning hours of April 3, there was thunder and lightning with the snow. Huge, wet flakes. Not the size of frisbees but at least quarter-size or even half-dollar size.

If I remember correctly, it began changing to snow with the official temperature around 41.

The final score:

10 inches accumulation at Valley Head in Dekalb County
9 inches Fort Payne
8 inches Oneonta
7 inches Pinson
6 inches Birmingham and Ashland
4 inches Thorsby, Talladega, Heflin
3 inches Centreville, Tuscaloosa, Greensboro, Livingston, Thomasville
2 inches Bridgeport, Cullman, Haleyville, Camden
1 inch Montgomery, Vernon, Lafayette

While the official snow depth was 6 inches at Birmingham, it was heavier in the higher elevations on the city’s NE side.

Trees were already green.
Azalea bushes and dogwood trees were in full blossom.

It was a strange sight with all the greenery and blossoms bending under the heavy weight of the snow. I took a number of color slides next morning, including azalea and pink dogwood blossoms peeking out from under the snow.

It was a heavy wet snow and the lush foliage caught the snow breaking numerous tree limbs. The cleanup was equal to that of a severe thunderstorm.

A trace of snow was recorded as far south as Atmore and Mobile. The snow tapered off to the NW with only a trace on the ground at places like Moulton and Huntsville.

I worked the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift at the National Weather Service on West Oxmoor Road that evening, April 2. In those days, we had a voice mail telephone system that we recorded the local forecast on that could take 50 local calls and 8 long distance calls simultaneously. That was my voice on the recording that mentioned only rain. After the rain changed to snow after midnight and toward the pre-dawn hours, the recording was never changed, so people were hearing a rain forecast as the snow was getting deeper and deeper.

I was terribly embarrassed.

When I thought about that again this morning, I am still embarrassed to this day.

We named it the “dogwood snowstorm” for obvious reasons. The snow melted quickly later on April 3, but it was a sight to remember forever.

That large slow-moving low-pressure area moved on to the NE from April 3 through April 5 and produced some unbelievable snow totals. In the Great Smoky Mountain Park, 60 inches accumulated on Newfound Gap. That is the largest single storm snowfall in North Carolina history–at least up until that time. As much as 36 inches was recorded in SE Kentucky. In Charleston, West Virginia, 25 inches easily broke the previous record for the entire month of April which was only 6 inches. Akron, Ohio got 21 inches–an all-time record. I-40 was closed by the snow for the first time since it had opened to traffic 20 years earlier.

Do you remember?

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