Chronicling Maryland's 'sweet spot for snow'

If you think it's been a long winter here in the Patapsco Drainage Basin, imagine Western Maryland: The first snow landed out there in October; they've had 90 inches so far, with about 2 feet of it held in place by a freeze that has made Deep Creek Lake safe for ice fishing.

Of course, winters are almost always like that in Garrett County; it's the snowiest part of Maryland. But I enjoy going over Garrett weather facts now and then for their shock value and for the perspective they provide for my winter-weary and weather-worried neighbors in Baltimore.

Mentioning the western notch of our oddly-shaped state is sort of like bringing up that eccentric cousin who lives in the woods; you respect his independence and his resilience, but you sometimes forget that you're actually related to the guy.

Indeed, we are. Western Maryland is out there — about three hours from Baltimore, beyond the Eastern Continental Divide, nestled between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, with mountain elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 feet and average annual snowfall of 138 inches.

Shocking, isn't it?

And there was that one winter when Garrett had 262.5 inches of snow — and I'd like you all just to take a minute and imagine that. That's higher than the flag court in right field at Camden Yards.

Of course, that was the winter of 2009-2010, with three major storms, including Snowmaggedon, and everyone on the East Coast got clobbered. But Garrett County set a record — nearly 22 feet of snow before the crocuses bloomed. The previous record, set seven winters earlier, had been 233.5 inches.

Wait, there's more: In the winter of 1985, the temperature at Oakland hit minus-36 with a wind chill of minus-120, with 42 inches of snow on the ground.

In 1976, Garrett County had snow on May 20.

Gary Sabo, an attorney with Sage Title Group in McHenry, near Deep Creek Lake and the Wisp ski resort, has been tracking the regional weather since he moved there in 2006.

A serious snowboarder, he was attracted to the area because of the great snowfalls. And he's been a weather nerd since he was a kid, one of many Americans who became enthralled with meteorology and tracking storms because of the Weather Channel. He even took classes in meteorology at Penn State: "As many as I could without making it a major."

Once he settled in Deep Creek, Sabo started keeping records of the Garrett weather, researching its history and blogging about it. He had a website for a while — it's down for repairs — and he hopes to revive it, indulging his long fascination with the question: Why does Garrett County get so much snow?

"It's an interesting area," Sabo says. "We're far enough west, close enough to Lake Erie, to receive lake-effect snow, like Pittsburgh does, yet we're also south and east enough to catch the northwesterly side of a nor'easter, which is what's going to happen [Thursday]. We also get a phenomenon that is called 'up-slope' snow, where moisture crosses a valley and rises up a mountainside."

And as it rises, it cools and the moisture condenses and turns to snow.

"It's like the mountains are wringing out the moisture in the air, like squeezing a wet towel," he says.

The area also sees other weather systems — Manitoba Maulers, Alberta Clippers — that bring big streams of cold air and moisture through the county, dropping snow on the ground for weeks at a time.

Sabo calls Garrett a "sweet spot" for snow. As he once put it on his website:

"While some areas in the East are known for their lake-effect snows, like Erie or Buffalo, and others for their propensity for coastal storms, such as Boston or Albany, Garrett County is perfectly situated to benefit from several types of weather systems and thus explains why the county typically averages over 100 inches annually."

And the people who live there cope; they're used to big winters and long winters. You won't see Garrett countians panicking at a forecast of 6 to 10 inches of snow, Sabo says. "The grocery stores won't look like they do on a snow day down your way," he said, referring to the well-known tendency — some might say "tradition" — of Baltimoreans to stock up on milk, bread and bathroom tissue when snow is on the way.

"We have the equipment to deal with snow," Sabo says, referring to the county and state trucks, plows and snowblowers that quickly go into action when it snows on Routes 219 and 495, the main roads through Garrett.

With Presidents Day approaching, and the Winter Olympics on television, Wisp should have a big weekend. The ski resort reports an average base of 38 to 53 inches, with 10 more inches in the last week and more expected — and welcome — on Thursday in Maryland's sweet spot for snow.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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