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Climate Friday | Why was Wednesday's snow so hard to shovel?

WTOL 11 Meteorologist John Burchfield has the answers.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Winter weather finally arrived this week, chipping away at the snowfall deficit and delivering heavy snow and wet accumulations to the region. 

In the last few editions of Climate Friday, we've explained the causes of this unseasonably mild and dry winter weather. This week, we'll recap our biggest snowfall of the season and explain the science behind this heavy, wet snow.

How much snow did you see? A total of 4.6 inches fell at Toledo Express Airport, with widespread amounts between 3-6 inches in the Toledo metro. The heaviest snowfall impacted areas west of Toledo, including Fulton County, which saw up to 8 inches of snow. 

Portions of southeast Michigan, including Lenawee County, picked up over half a foot of wet snow accumulation. This snowstorm brought our biggest snowfall in nearly a year, making a dent in our ongoing snowfall deficit. 

Even with this recent snowfall, our winter total is still far below-average. With 7.8 inches of winter snowfall so far, we're still a whopping 10.5 inches lower than average. With less than half off our normal winter snowfall, this season has delivered recurring dry and mild conditions - until this week.

This recent snowstorm did bring us above average in the rainfall department, however. Our winter precipitation total now adds up to nearly 5 inches.

In addition to delivering 4.6 inches of snow, Wednesday's snowstorm accounted for over a half-inch of liquid. You probably felt how heavy, dense and wet the snow was. This snow was perfect for building a snowman or packing a snowball. 

Packing snow is caused by high water content, whereas fluffy snow has a lower liquid amount. This recent snowfall had a 8:1 ratio of snow to liquid, meaning you'd get a full inch of rainwater by melting down 8 inches of snow. Our typical snowfall has a 12:1 ratio, representing lower water content and a fluffier texture. 

The lightest, airiest snow occurs with high ratios up to 30:1. This "pixie dust" snow would take a full 2 to 3 feet of accumulation to melt down a single inch of liquid. Due to the high water content, our recent snowstorm had a wet texture that made for perfect packing.

Despite the heavy snowfall, road conditions improved rapidly as snow melted away fairly quickly. Part of this had to do with milder temperatures. Remember our winter storm before Christmas? Even with minor snowfall amounts, road conditions were hazardous because the cold temperatures reduced the effectiveness of road salt. 

Milder temperatures near or above freezing improved the efficacy of salt and melted away the snow more rapidly. In addition to the temperatures, sun angle played a role. "What sun" you may be wondering. Even on cloudy days where you can't see the sun, its ultraviolet rays contribute to melting snow. The angle that the sun's rays strike the earth's surface impacts the rate of snow melt. 

During the darkest days of December, the sun angle is at a low point of only 25 degrees. In December, the sun's rays are at the least direct point of the year. Now, the Sun angle is up to 30 degrees, meaning the ultraviolet rays strike the Earth's surface more directly. 

Even though this 5-degree differential might not sound like much, it makes a big difference in melting snow off the roads. This is why late-season snowfall melts more quickly, and also why snow has a tougher time sticking during the daytime but accumulates more readily after sunset and before sunrise. 

In the summer, warmer temperatures and sun angle helped this week's snowfall melt more quickly.

After a mild and dry start to the winter season, cold and snowy conditions have finally arrived. The cold and active storm track will likely continue into the start of February. 

Will we make up for the slow start to winter and erase the snowfall deficit? Time will tell, but we sure have a lot of ground to make up. Whatever the rest of the winter season has in store, the WTOL 11 weather team will keep you safe and updated.


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