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Cincinnati wasn't expecting this much snow. What happened?

Posted at 5:54 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 20:17:47-05

On Monday night, meteorologists’ snow predictions for Cincinnati topped out around four inches. By Tuesday morning, people around the Tri-State were attempting to shovel their cars out of 10-inch snow drifts. It was the city’s biggest recorded snowfall in around a decade.

It’s been over a decade since we’ve had 9.8 inches of snow go into the almanac, and you can find an interactive map of the totals here.

How did we get from point A to winter wonderland B? I asked WCPO chief meteorologist Steve Raleigh, who explained why his weather-tracking models didn’t predict the pile-up.

“What happened is that we have what was called snow banding,” he said.

That’s when an area is hit by thin strips of heavy snowfall, creating a landscape striped with deep snow in only some areas instead of an evenly distributed two to four inches everywhere.

GALLERY: Once-in-a-decade snowfall around Cincinnati

Raleigh said there were three factors that made this happen.

First: “We ended up seeing the system essentially not moving,” he said of the storm. “It was supposed to move progressively southeast. It didn’t do that.”

Second, temperatures dropped, wringing more moisture and more snow out of the air.

And finally, we had a jet streak in the atmosphere. The National Weather Service defines a jet streak as “a portion of the overall jet stream where winds along the jet core flow are stronger than in other areas along the jet stream” — basically, a small region of especially fast, strong wind.

I asked Steve to explain the idea in simple terms. He used the example of filling a hose with water and then stopping it up.

“When you hold it back and then let go, that surge of water that happens, that's what happened over our atmosphere in the jet stream or storm track,” he said. “So this surge came in over the top of us, producing these heavy snow bands."

All of these factors coming together are not unprecedented. But, Steve said, it’s not all that common either for our area. Notably, this snowstorm happened during a La Niña year, when the overall global weather changes. For the Tri-State, it usually mean less snow that year, but this storm certainly gets us closer to our yearly average of 22.5 inches.

The last time Steve remembers seeing this much snow in Cincinnati is 2010, he said. Even then, he added, he had a better heads-up about what was heading our way because the storm system itself was simpler.

“It's certainly not unprecedented, but it is unusual,” he said of the Tuesday morning snowfall. “It is rare. There's no question about it."