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Sean Kirst: While the snow piles up in Erie, Pa., Buffalo still holds epic record

As more snow blew into Buffalo over the last four or five days, enough to leave the city surpassing 80 inches for the winter, the guy known as the oracle of the Golden Snowball was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants and seemed far more preoccupied with Erie, Pa.

Pat DeCoursey left upstate New York for North Carolina for a classic reason that rearranges the strongest loyalties. He loves our winters, but he went South to be near his first grandchild. Still, DeCoursey soldiers on with an obsessive statistical avocation he embraced more than a decade ago.

He keeps track of the two snow contests that matter for the big upstate cities. DeCoursey breathed new life into the Golden Snowball competition, which honors – if that's the word you prefer – the snowiest large city in New York. He also created a new award, one he calls the Golden Snow Globe, to spotlight the snowiest large city in the nation.

Buffalo often seems like an impressive afterthought in those contests, always in the running, rarely at the top. DeCoursey, however, understands some history that takes on growing significance each year:

Buffalo in winter: Burke's Green. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

The gold standard for the Golden Snowball, the winter record that puts all others in perspective, was forged in Buffalo.

Even if records are made to be broken, you've got to wonder if this one ever will.

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What it comes down to is the idea of a seasonal snowfall of 200 inches, the Everest of big city snowfall records. While that threshold is no big deal for a more remote setting like Redfield in the legendary Tug Hill region, where monster lake-effect snow this year has already kicked that rural town over 300 inches, it is a big deal indeed for any U.S. city of substantial size, say 100,000 people or more.

In Upstate, only Buffalo has ever come so close.

The city, in 1976-77, totaled a staggering 199.4 inches. It was an anomaly, a record without logic or local precedent. It's like a solid hitter in baseball suddenly hitting 80 home runs. Even Syracuse, which remains a dynastic national force in the snowfall contests, has never reached such a peak.

That record takes on renewed and impressive perspective when compared to what's happening this year in Erie, an annual national contender for snowfall honors, with this winter serving as the exclamation point.

In the national contest, Erie has blown away the field, capturing the attention of such media outlets as the Weather Channel. The Pennsylvania city has climbed beyond 150 seasonal inches for the first time in its history, which at this point is almost 50 inches ahead of runner-up Syracuse and about twice what we've received in Buffalo.

That's a lot of snow, but imagine this. Erie, even at such a lofty point, would need almost 50 more inches to challenge that one astounding Buffalo winter, of 41 years ago.

For this year – plenty snowy enough – Buffalo is fourth in the nation behind Erie, Syracuse and Rochester, DeCoursey said, with South Bend, Ind. closing fast. It's been a long time since Buffalo earned a statewide Golden Snowball, going all the way back to the winter of 2001-2002, when the city won the title with a relatively puny 59.1 inches of snow.

The fact remains that Buffalo's 199.4 inches in 1976-77 stands as a legendary symbol of big snow for large U.S. cities.

There is a staggering improbability, a sense of disbelief, to that number. Statistically and scientifically, it's the kind of Lake Erie winter that might only happen here once every 200 years, said David Sage, now retired, who was a lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Buffalo. At the time, he said, it broke the city's old snowfall record for a winter by more than 70 inches.

That winter is most famous for the Blizzard of '77, as fierce and frightening a snowstorm as Buffalo's ever seen, and the memory of the blizzard tends to overshadow the relentless snowfall that triggered the creation of the Golden Snowball competition.

Think of it. As Tony Ansuini of the Buffalo weather station points out, the blizzard itself did not really bring all that much snow to the city. The record was built on grinding, never-seen-again consistency. That was a season when Lake Erie froze over early, when it was snowing hard by November and essentially did not let up for months.

You need more perspective? Cleveland has never hit 118 inches for a season. Even Syracuse – which routinely gets more than 120 inches of snow and occasionally is the snowiest large city in all of North America – has only twice gone over 190 inches, and has never come within 7 inches of the Buffalo record.

In 1976-77, Buffalo received a dash of snow in October, 31.3 inches in November, 60.7 in December, 68.3 in January, 22.7 in February, another 13.5 in March, 2.2 in April – capped off by a maddening half-inch in May. That's measurable snow in eight consecutive months.

Ansuini noted that Buffalo followed that up with 154.3 inches of snow in 1977-78, now the third-most in city history, for a two-year total of almost 354 inches. Top to bottom, that's almost 30 feet of snow over two winters.

A scene in Buffalo, Blizzard of 1977. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

You've got to wonder how much of the city's snowy national reputation was built upon the magnitude of those two years. They were certainly what caused Peter Chaston, a meteorologist stationed at the time in Rochester, to suggest a "Golden Snowball" contest for the large upstate cities.

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Chaston took golden spray paint to a foam ball and jammed it atop an old Little League trophy, which meteorologists presented each spring to either Buffalo, Syracuse or Rochester, large cities that often doubled as national snowfall champions.

After a burst of interest, that original trophy would eventually be lost – last seen in Buffalo, its whereabouts are now a mystery – and the contest faded away, until DeCoursey began charting the competition again in the 2000s. The A-1 Trophy Shop of Syracuse dedicated a new and gleaming Golden Snowball, a trophy Buffalo has not "won" in 16 years.

That is one championship drought many Western New Yorkers are just fine with maintaining.

As for the 199.4-inch total, it remains the so-far-untouchable holy grail of Upstate big city snowfall. DeCoursey – oracle of major snow – believes the mark will fall one of these years. "Someone will hit it," he said of 200 inches, because he knows records are made to be broken, because every generation has its own once-in-a-lifetime weather.

Jonathan DiCicco, director of international relations at Canisius College, clears snow this week from his car. (Sean Kirst/The Buffalo News)

Maybe. But many of us share the philosophy of Jonathan DiCicco, a guy I met last week as he used a telescoping brush to clear snow from his car in Allentown. He's an associate professor of political science and director of international relations at Canisius College, a native of Long Island who tries to enjoy the winter, who speaks of a certain peace in shoveling.

"Every true Buffalonian, on some level, loves the snow," he said.

Even so, when it comes to 199 inches, the professor might find comfort in the thoughts of David Sage.

It's just fine, once every 200 years.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

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