snow snow snow

Here in the non-Buffalo part of upstate New York, we just got our first big snow dump of the year. Okay, it was seven inches, not sixty, but enough to create that Winter Wonderland effect. Fortunately for us, my family’s not traveling till Saturday, so we’re not stuck in an airport or behind an accident on the interstate, but watching from our cozy living room.

Last year, we were living in central New Jersey. It’s only 3 1/2 hours to the south, but what a world of difference in terms of weather. 2013-14 was one of the ten snowiest winters in NJ, but it was still a bit less snowy than an average winter in Albany. (And Albany only gets two-thirds the snow of Buffalo, and just over half that of Syracuse.)

The big difference, of course, is that Albany is prepared for 60 inches of snow a year. Central New Jersey is not.

So, you know, we did all the things that northerners do when faced with the obvious weakness of those in more southerly climes — mostly mock them for closing things down at the first indication of snow. Of course, we realize that that’s just compensating for the fact that we live somewhere with six months of winter, but we’ll take what we can get.

Anyway, there was a map going around last winter that showed the inches of snow at which school is typically canceled in various places in the U.S. (It originally came from an awesome sounding Reddit called MapPorn.)


It looked about right to me. Albany County is one of the northernmost 12″ counties, just before you hit the 24″ ones further upstate. And if you had asked me, I would have said 12″ is when Albany schools usually close. I grew up in the snowy Appalachian belt of Pennsylvania, and 6″ is about when those schools closed. Mercer County, NJ is on the bottom edge of the 6″ zone, and the last county before you hit the 3″ zone — again, that sounds about right — I might have said schools closed at 4″, but it could be 6″.

Obviously, there are reasons it makes sense to invest in lots of salt and plows if you get multiple snowstorms each year, and not so much if you don’t. But it occurred to me that it would be fun to compare the chart above with the number of days per year schools actually close due to weather. I am wondering if it is roughly equal, until you get so far south that there’s hardly ever snow. Having lived in upstate NY, various parts of PA, central NJ, and the DC area (not to mention the basically snow-free SF Bay Area), my impression is that they all (except the Bay Area) basically close schools the same two or three days in a typical year.

Were I a data visualization whiz, I’d whip up some lovely maps to test this point. Well, assuming I could find data on numbers of school closings per year. I’m not, but the inches of snow at which schools close does map pretty directly onto mean annual snowfall (from this site; sorry there’s no legend, but another chart suggests that light-blue stripe across the middle is 24-36″ per year and the darker blues and purples are 48″+):


It also lines up with the number of 6+” snowstorms per year (from this article):



The obvious mismatches are the upper Midwest, where snowfall is moderate (under 36″/year), but it gets very, very cold. Bismarck, North Dakota typically sees temperatures reach -10F/-23C a few times each winter. (Albany, on the other hand, rarely gets more than a few degrees below 0F/-18C.) But Bismarck, like Albany, closes schools at 12″ of snow. The difference is, Bismarck only gets about 1.5 6″ snowstorms per year, to Albany’s 4. So it’s not hitting that 12″ mark very often at all.

My guess of what’s going on behind this? Everyone in states with weather agrees what a reasonable number of days is to close schools, and invests in the appropriate equipment to keep closings to that frequency. Albany keeps closings to 2-3 days despite 60″ of snow because we’re serious about plowing, while a similar winter causes New Jersey to run out of salt. But if you live somewhere where it’s brutal cold that is the toughest feature of winter, not big snow dumps, you up the ante and ignore a foot of snow, because you need some leeway to close school when it’s cold as hell out, snowy or not.

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you in the U.S. Time to stop futzing around on the internet and go eat a ton of food.

Written by epopp

November 27, 2014 at 9:09 pm

One Response

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  1. Slow news day up there, eh, Beth? Greetings from sunny Chapel Hill, where the temp just hit 45F. (As a refugee from upstate NY myself, I can relate to the snow charts. When the snow got so deep outside my garage that I couldn’t lift the shovel high enough to get over the drifts, I left…)

    Liked by 2 people

    Howard Aldrich

    November 27, 2014 at 9:19 pm

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