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Sean Kirst: After further review, Erie never came close to Buffalo snow record

It turns out Erie, Pa., did not come close to even laying a mitten on Buffalo's epic snow record.

The National Weather Service now says Erie received "only" 166 inches last winter. That may be a record for Erie, but it is nowhere near Buffalo's almost-200-inch winter of 1976-77, which Erie at one point seemed poised to surpass.

All in all, it is almost 33 inches less than the amount of snow previously claimed for Erie. Why the 33-inch gap? According to a weather service memorandum from July, a committee of climate and weather specialists - convened to study extreme events in statewide weather - ruled that Erie's big winter numbers were accidentally inflated.

As an example, committee members determined that inexperienced snow observers at the Erie airport, confused by high winds that tossed around heavy snowfall, added an extra 27.1 inches to the actual snowfall during December alone.

During that storm, according to the memorandum, observers mistakenly used a traffic cone to stabilize a board utilized for measuring during a monumental storm on Christmas and the following day.

"Although resourceful," the committee ruled, "this practice may have impacted the snowfall accumulation."

Christine Riley, who serves as warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland, said she is sympathetic to the treacherous conditions faced by the observers in Erie.

"These snow spotters had only been trained three weeks before this historic event for Erie," she said, "and even the most well-trained snow spotters would have had trouble measuring snow during an event involving so much drifting and blowing snow."

Until a late April warmup, Erie – which at one point had an official total of 198.5 inches of snow – seemed on the brink of knocking off Buffalo's 41-year-old record of 199.4 inches, set during the Western New York winter famous for the Blizzard of '77.

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

The revisions return the list for the nation's snowiest winters to the way it stood a year ago, according to Pat DeCoursey, an upstate native who monitors big city snow totals on his "Golden Snow Globe" site. He uses a population of 100,000, as of the last census, as his dividing point. Syracuse, for instance, regains second place with its 192.1 inch snowfall of 1992-93.

While Erie drops on the list, its 166-inch winter still means only three large U.S. cities – Buffalo, Syracuse and South Bend, Ind. – have ever experienced snowier winters, according to DeCoursey's research. The changes also reinforce the sheer, lasting magnitude of Buffalo's biggest winter: No other city, in 41 years, has come any closer to that record than 7.3 inches.

David Sage, a retired lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Buffalo who was on the job for the unforgettable Blizzard of '77, followed this winter's snowfall chase with particular fascination. Sage, who never forgets the ferocity of the winter of 1976-77, had rooted in a good-natured way against Erie breaking the record, and was philosophical Wednesday when he learned of the revisions.

While the diminished snowfall meant Erie lost a couple of statewide snowfall records that it seemed to have set, Sage did find a bright spot: Four months ago, it felt disappointing for many residents of that Pennsylvania city when Erie surged to within an inch of Buffalo's record, and did not quite get enough snow to close the deal.

Now, Sage said, that was clearly for the best. The sting of the revisions would have been significantly worse, he said, if the city had believed it claimed the snowiest large city winter of all time – and then abruptly lost it.

"In Erie, it was still an incredible year, an incredible season and an incredible event," Sage said, speaking of that December storm.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Read more of his work in this archive.

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