Thursday's flurries set Florida record

Ocean-effect snow creates buzz from Jacksonville through coastal Georgia

By Blake Mathews - Meteorologist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Snow-way! Call it a miracle! Snow danced over the streets of Jacksonville Thursday for the first time in five years and tied the record for the day of a trace set 57 years ago.

Granted it's not a Buffalo type record where the only way of escape out of your house after a snow event is out the second story window. But this is Florida and any flurry, whether one or a dozen is a BIG deal.

Snow is exceedingly rare in these parts. It was enough to drive adults and kids alike from high rise offices downtown and out of schools to witness this "great white rain," a term coined by explorer's through this area in the late 1700s when snow fell over the region, according to meteorologist-emeritus George Winterling, that was falling from the sky.

So how rare is snow in Jacksonville really? According to NWS meteorologist David Shuler, unofficially Jacksonville has recorded 18 winters since 1910 with at least one trace snowfall event. This only accounts for the months of December, January and February. Not November or March. Therefore the number of events may be a bit higher if those two months are accounted for. According to meteorologist Jason Hess, only three snowfalls have actually accumulated officially in Jacksonville in 103 years (1956, 1986 and 1989) with the greatest 24 hour accumulation of 1.9 inches in February 1899 -- before records officially began.

Thursday's snowfall was a rare phenomenon known as 'ocean effect snow.' It's the same idea as lake-effect snow except it occurs over the ocean.  The idea here is that the water is warmer than the land this time of year allowing moisture to rise and condense to form clouds and rain or snow. 

When our winds shifted to the northeast, the moisture began moving towards land. Even though the surface temperatures were above freezing near the surface, the air just above the boundary layer (basically the first few hundred feet above the surface) was below freezing allowing the snowflakes to make it to the ground before melting. Voila! Snow.

It nearly didn't happen though. A powerful arctic front pushed through Florida late Wednesday powered by a mega-high pressure system over the mid west. That high drove in a lot of dry air, evidence by our dew points (measure of moisture in the air) into the teens meaning any flakes would have evaporated before reaching the ground. Through the process of evaporative cooling (wet-bulbing), our atmosphere cooled and moistened just enough to allow for the flakes to hit the ground.

Snow was last observed officially, a trace, in Jacksonville the day after Christmas in 2010 with measurable snowfall in southeast Georgia. 

"Today's forecast looks cold and...and I just want to point out the ever so slight possibility of a few light flurries across our area today. A small chance but a chance nonetheless," meteorologist Richard Nunn said Thursday on The Morning Show. Many thought that statement to be the joke of the day -- until it happened!

The Weather Authority ran with the idea and thus '#FlurryWatch2015' was underway with Blake Mathews out in the field scanning the skies for what was sure to be a bust.

Around 10 a.m. Thursday, multiple reports started pouring into the newsroom of flurries around Jacksonville, then spreading north to Fernandina Beach, Yulee and into coastal Georgia in the afternoon. By late in the evening, the event was over. However, in the minds of all of those in our area, the event rages on bringing a palpable excitement unknown even to kids at a toy store!

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