January 23, 2011

Rare snow storm brings 6 inches or more to Hatteras and Ocracoke…WITH SLIDE SHOW


What one television weatherman called “an overachieving low,” brought heavy snow and blizzard-like conditions to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands on Saturday, Jan. 22.

The rare heavy snow storm surprised not only islanders but also weather forecasters at The National Weather Service office in Newport, N.C.

“We were not expecting this much,” said forecaster Jeremy Schulz by phone today.

There was no snow in the forecast until about Friday afternoon when the Weather Service issued a snow advisory for the area, including the southern Outer Banks.  Still, the forecast was for 1 to 2 inches.

That was still the forecast when the snow started falling about 10 o’clock on Saturday morning.

The snow got heavier as the day went on and the north/northeast winds picked up – gusting up to 40 mph at times.  In the early afternoon, the Weather Service changed the winter weather advisory to a winter storm warning.

The heavy snow and gusty winds caused white-out conditions by late afternoon on Saturday.

The snow tapered off and ended about 10 p.m.

According to the Weather Service, the total in Frisco at Billy Mitchell Airport and at Rodanthe and Ocracoke was 6 inches.

As usual with snow on the Outer Banks, the total is difficult to measure because the white stuff here is usually accompanied by gusty winds, so it piles up in high drifts in some exposed areas and leaves other areas with little or no accumulation.

Folks who were out and about on Hatteras early this morning said the heaviest snow was quite obviously in northern Frisco and Buxton.  There, the snowfall in more sheltered areas in the woods was estimated at 8 inches.

In any event, it was a rare deviation from most coastal storms that bring snow to the north and west of the islands, but are often rain or just snow showers here.

This time, there was little snow north of Oregon Inlet – Manteo had just a trace – and on the mainland, where most of the snow fell near the Pamlico Sound.

Schulz said the heavy snow bands set up in and along the Pamlico Sound, bringing the highest totals to the barrier islands and the eastern parts of the mainland from Carteret County up through Havelock and to Rodanthe.  West of those areas had a trace or only a few inches.

The culprit -- if you want to call it that -- was a coastal low just off North Carolina, Schulz said.  Forecasters knew there was enough cold air in place for snow along the southern Outer Banks but did not foresee the amount of moisture that would be pulled into the storm.

“One of the problems forecasting winter,” Schulz said, is that snowfall “depends on where the heavy bands set up.”

As the day went on, he said, it became apparent that those heavy bands were right over and along the sound.

If the low pressure had been 30 or 40 more miles out to sea, he said, the islands would have seen little snow.

Photos of the accumulating snow and white-out conditions began hitting Facebook by the afternoon, and by dark, dozens and dozens of pictures had been posted.

This morning most church services on the islands were cancelled and almost everyone headed outdoors to enjoy the unusual snow event.

Snow flurries and snow showers are fairly common here in the winter, and sometimes, a light dusting covers the ground.  Several times this year, areas north of Oregon Inlet got several inches, while we on the southern islands got nothing.

The last big snow storm here was on Jan. 23, 2003 – eight years ago today – when 10 inches to a foot fell on Hatteras and Ocracoke with some drifts of 3 to 4 feet.

The all-time record snowfall on the islands was Dec. 23-24, 1989, with 13.3 inches at Cape Hatteras.

This morning, kids -- big and small -- were out sliding around, having snowball fights, and especially making snowmen of all descriptions.  Some of the younger kids and dogs had never seen a measurable snowfall before. Most were having a great time.

A popular attraction today was the beach – coated in white with drifts along the dunes. Now that is a sight you don’t see too often.

By afternoon, Highway 12 was mostly clear of snow, while the back roads and side streets remained snow- and ice-covered.

At dark, the slush was beginning to freeze again, and the Weather Service was warning of dangerous driving conditions overnight.

Tomorrow was a scheduled holiday for Hatteras students, so they won’t get a day out of school.  However, county garbage pick-up on the island has been cancelled for Monday because of the condition of the side roads.  Normal pick-up is expected to resume on Tuesday.

Another coastal low is forecast for Tuesday into Wednesday, Schulz said, but – at least at this point – precipitation should be all rain on Hatteras and Ocracoke.

Click here to see a slide show of photos sent to us by readers and posted on Facebook
We want to thank these islanders for sharing their photos:  Lynne Foster, Bertie Dixon III, Jennie Veal, Arnold Head, Cindy O'Neal, Diane Brown, Donna Tokazowski, Liz Fox, Gary Owens, Jennifer Goodman, John Head, Joy Crist, Karen Miller, Kim Mosher, Kristin Gray, Licia Caldwell, Margie Easley, Mary Styron, Melodi Schwartz, Ruth Webb, and Terri Cartwright.

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