Weather delay: Snow arrives late, sets record … and stays late

A pedestrian walks near the snow-covered "Winter Fountains" sculpture during a light snowfall Saturday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

While it did cause some delays at Philadelphia International Airport, perhaps the most significant — and fortunate — delay attendant to the season’s first snowfall lay in the arrival of the snow itself.

In part due to thunderstorms that broke out over the ocean off the Mid-Atlantic coast, it didn’t start snowing around Philadelphia until midmorning Saturday, several hours later than predicted. That likely was a huge break for the region’s motorists heading out for shopping or to the Army-Navy game; snow has a harder time sticking to roads in daylight.

Thanks to that timing, temperatures that weren’t far below freezing, and the general pace of life on a Saturday, the first snow of the season was a benign one even though it set a record for the date. Frosting the lawns, the foliage, and the tree branches, while leaving the streets primarily wet, it was as though nature decided to decorate for the holidays.

With widespread accumulations of 3 and 4 inches throughout the region — and as much as 8 in southern Delaware — the snow was expected to continue well into the night, with some slush hardening and road icing likely as temperatures headed to the 20s.

Camera icon Staff photograph
Snow decorates foliage in Upper Merion Township; paving remains wet..

Philadelphia reported an official 3.3 inches at 7 p.m., besting the previous record of 2.9 for a Dec. 9, set 75 years ago. And the first snowfall of the season came just about on schedule, based on long-term records.

Area roads, even the Schuylkill Expressway, were coated with veneers of snow and ice at midafternoon, but no major problems were reported on either side of the Delaware River.

At Philadelphia International Airport, the weather was resulting in delays averaging close to an hour for incoming flights, but spokeswoman Mary Flannery noted that Saturday happens to be  the lightest day at the airport.

As for SEPTA: “Were in good shape,” said spokesman Andrew Busch.

PennDot reported no issues, save perhaps for some thumb-twiddling while crews waited for snow that did not arrive until midmorning, several hours after it was due.

The National Weather Service continued its winter weather advisory for 2 to 4 inches of snow in Philadelphia and adjacent counties on both sides of the Delaware, and winter-storm warnings for Cape May County and southern Delaware, where up to 8 inches was reported.

The snow could continue until midnight, said Sarah Johnson, a weather service meteorologist in the Mount Holly office, with 1 to 2 more inches in the immediate Philadelphia area.

As of 5:30 p.m., up to 3 inches had been reported in Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. Other totals, posted by observers on the phillywx.com discussion board, included 4.2 inches in Lower Makefield, Bucks County, 3.6 in West Caln, and 3.2 in Graterford.

Those amounts suggest that the weather service forecasts of 2 to 4 inches had verified, but why were the flakes so late to show up?

The snow had to battle entrenched dry air and it took a while to “moisten the column,” as the meteorologists say.

But another big factor that could keep down the totals was what happened over the ocean, weather service meteorologist Chad Shafer said. Thunderstorms developed offshore during the early morning, and they hogged some of the storm’s moisture.

Some heavier snow bands, however, moved through the region during the day.

Although temperatures will remain below normal the next few days, as the sun is reaching its low point of the year, highs around 40 should help remove snow from paved surfaces, at least.

By midweek, however, the region is expected to experience its coldest spell since the dead of last winter, with temperatures not reaching freezing on Wednesday.