January 2018 has been pretty eventful, in terms of the weather: record cold, above-average snowfall and even some of the flooding that can be a hallmark of winters around here.
January 1978 is not impressed.
Twenty years ago, Pittsburgh suffered through a January that broke records, many of which still stand today: The Pittsburgh January with the most snowfall? That’s January 1978. The second-biggest back-to-back snowstorms? January 1978. Greatest depth of snow on the ground?
We’ll let you figure it out.
Smaller storms at the beginning of the month started the pattern. A storm on Jan. 8 started what would turn out to be a three-month stretch of at least an inch of snow on the ground. There was additional snowfall on five of the next seven days — typical for a January, which is on average Pittsburgh’s snowiest month.
But the snow that started on Jan. 16 was different — it didn’t let up until two days later, when just over a foot had been measured at Greater Pittsburgh Airport. But there was barely time to dig out from that storm before another hit on Jan. 19. When it let up two days later, there was more than 25 inches on the ground.
On Friday, Jan. 20, many businesses and offices simply shut down before the weather was too bad to navigate. And Port Authority buses, already stressed by maneuvering on snow-swamped streets, were overwhelmed by riders who had heeded the call to avoid driving cars into the city.
When the second storm subsided, there was a break — from the snow, at least. Through the snowy stretch, temperatures hadn’t been terribly cold; now, though, they would begin to warm rapidly, accompanied by persistent rain. By Jan. 26, the high temperature nearly hit 50 in the morning, but the forecast on the Post-Gazette’s front page sounded ominous:
The temperature is expected to fall rapidly during the day, and a winter storm watch is in effect though tonight. That means snow, with a possibility of heavy accumulation. By tonight, the temperature is expect to fall to near 15 degrees, and it’s supposed to be windy.
Turns out, it was all of those things. The high for the day was 47; the low was 8. The average wind speed for the day was 30 mph, and gusts over 70 mph knocked down trees and utility poles, peeled roofs from buildings and even blew out windows of buildings Downtown and at Carlow College. More than an inch of rain fell before temps dropped below freezing, and that caused flooding at the Mon Wharf and the bathtub section of the Parkway East and along rivers and streams where ice began to stack up. New snowfall was limited to about 3 inches, although National Weather Service officials told the Pittsburgh Press it was difficult to get accurate snowfall measurements because of the winds.
Pittsburgh got to take a breath after that. Temperatures moderated, and while there was some snowfall most of January’s remaining days, there weren’t any additional disasters. Even the historic Nor’easter that battered the coast from Feb. 5-7 didn’t do much here besides add a couple of inches of snow to January’s totals.
The memories of January 1978 are still alive in the winter records kept by the National Weather Service office in Moon. To recap our questions from above:
- Snowiest January: January 1978, 40.2 inches.
- Second-biggest back-to-back snowstorms: Jan. 16-18, 1978 (12.2 inches) and Jan. 19-21, 1978 (14.8 inches).
- Greatest depth of snow on the ground: Jan. 22, 1978, 26 inches.
- Longest period with at least 1 inch of snow on the ground: Jan. 8-March 12, 1978.
There’s still hope for January 2018. But if it wants to catch up with its 20-year-old predecessor, it needs to hurry.
— Mike Pound