Snow storm that plastered Chicago reaches DC

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 8:00am

A storm that set snowfall records in Chicago arrived in Washington, D.C. early Wednesday. It filled the sky with flakes, but with temperatures well above freezing, little of the white should accumulate for long.

Just west of the nation's capital, it could dump up to 20 inches of snow but may turn into a mix of rain and snow as it nears the Atlantic Ocean, the National Weather Service said.

The federal government has closed offices for Wednesday. Emergency personnel will be expected to work as well as those equipped to work from home. D.C. schools will also be closed.

Washington suburb Arlington, Virginia, has snow plows and trucks ready in case of major snowfall.

In its wake, the storm has left about a foot of snow in parts of Illinois, Minnesota and North Dakota, and paved a white swath through across the Upper Midwest.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport had 6 inches of snow Tuesday, besting a 1999 record for the date by 2.2 inches. It was the first 6-inch snowfall in the Windy City since the Groundhog Day blizzard of 2011, the weather service said.

Nearly 30,000 customers have lost electricity.

Silver lining? Not quite.

Surely, there's a silver lining to these snow clouds though, right? Don't they bring much-needed moisture to parched states?

Not quite.

Snow is very fluffy, and it takes up to a foot of it to squeeze out an inch of rain, meteorologists say.

Snowfall is "definitely a benefit, but not a drought-buster," said CNN Meteorologist Dave Hennen.

Many drought-stricken states need a foot of rain, not snow.

Lake City, Minnesota, has received 11.5 inches of snow since Sunday morning, which amounts to about an inch of rain. Not much for a state with levels of soil moisture near all-time lows, according to Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.

"Even flooding at this point won't alleviate a drought," the agency said. But the recent snow will give river and lake levels a nice bump.

The snow sent motorists sliding off of slick roads Tuesday, in spite of widespread coverage with salt spread by trucks.

Climate change and snowfall

Record snowfalls combined with record drought comes as no surprise to climatologists studying climate change.

Total snowfall in the western half of the country is dropping, said Princeton climatologist Sarah Kapnick, which will mean less accumulation of moisture from snow.

At the same time, the storms that sweep the United States should grow more intense, said meteorologist Marshall Shepherd from the University of Georgia. With global warming, "we're loading the dice or stacking the deck toward more intense blizzards," he said.

River water levels

Snowfall has bolstered water levels on the Mississippi River, which had dropped due to drought, said Ann McCulloch, spokeswoman for American Waterways Operators.

When high temperatures dried out much of the country last summer, barges were restricted to floating at a depth of nine feet instead of 12 feet. Recent snows have pushed water levels up enough to allow barges to run at 12 feet of depth again.

McCulloch is afraid this might not hold, when the summer heat returns.

Water where it's not needed

As the current storm reaches the Atlantic coast, the white precipitation should become slushier and deliver more moisture per foot of snow, according to CNN's Weather Center.

The Northeast doesn't need it. It is already plenty moist.

In the parched Plains states, snow hasn't helped enough.

They could use that rain.

CNN's Mariano Castillo, Dana Ford and Phil Gast contributed to this report

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