Article for January - February 2007
by Elizabeth Renedo
photography by Michael Foster, John Lucas and Phillip Jones
In many parts of the country, it's a common occurrence—a nuisance even—but here in sunny South Carolina, snow is a rare delight to be savored.
Few substances on earth are as simple in composition or as thoroughly saturated with symbolic meaning as snow. Miniscule flakes of frozen water form via deposition (a direct phase change from gas to solid without becoming a liquid) from water vapor in the atmosphere, then float from clouds to ground through the same old air we breathe every day, yet they leave that air somehow changed, charged with an intoxicating sense of wonder and exhilaration. We use our eyes and skin to sense the presence of snow in our environment, but it takes some less-well-defined sensory apparatus to tell us that Snow has arrived for a visit.
Nothing makes the mundane extraordinary quite like a fresh, white, glossy coat of snow, frost or ice. Windows that we grumble over washing when spring-cleaning rolls around are transformed into canvases for nature's prismatic paintbrush as feathery swaths of delicate frost form before our very eyes. The dead tree you never got around to cutting down last summer is an eyesore no longer now that it has donned a glittering, diamond-like sheath of ice. And the neighbor childrens' clubhouse, a simple plywood lean-to, begins suddenly to exude the charm of a rustic mountain cottage straight out of Grimms' Fairy Tales wrapped as it is in downy whiteness.
South Carolinians are particularly susceptible to the enchanting power of snow and its winter weather cohorts because they come to call on us so infrequently. An average winter can bring from one to three snowstorms to all regions of the Palmetto State except the Lowcountry, which receives even less of the wintry white stuff: about one snowstorm every three years. Of these dustings, few result in accumulation, and even when accumulation does occur, snow rarely lasts longer than a few hours on the ground, leaving untold numbers of disappointed children scrambling to get ready for school on what they thought would be a snow day.
In South Carolina, snow can occur between November and March but has fallen as late as May in mountainous northwestern counties. Most South Carolina snowstorms are formed when a cold, dry polar air mass heads south and a mass of warm moist air from the tropics moves north. When the two air masses collide, a counterclockwise "cyclone" or low-pressure center can develop over the ocean. When this happens, if the swirling low-pressure center positions itself just right—far enough south to keep cold, polar air over the Palmetto State, but close enough to the supply of tropical moist air to produce precipitation within the storm system—children gathered around the television for the latest on school closings may just get their shared wish.
Of course, not all snowstorms create fodder for fond wintertime reminiscences, even in balmy South Carolina. A look back at storms on record shows they can be dangerous, destructive and even deadly.
On the frigid afternoon of February 9, 1973, a heavy snow began to fall, blanketing the state in sheet after dangerous sheet of the stuff for a full 24-hour period. This storm focused high winds and frozen precipitation on a strip of territory parallel to the coast and about 75 miles inland, leaving the town of Rimini under the heaviest covering on state record—24 inches. In fact, because the center of this unusual storm swirled so far offshore, it coated South Carolina's beaches in three to seven inches of accumulation, but left the northwestern counties, which usually see more snow than the rest of the state, virtually untouched.
The 1973 storm stranded tens of thousands of travelers on our interstate highways—many of whom had to be airlifted to safety—killed nine people, closed roads throughout the state for two to four days and caused the collapse of around 200 buildings, not counting the innumerable carports and awnings it brought tumbling down. The storm's financial wreckage totaled more than $30 million in property and road damage, rescue and snow removal costs.
Just because such events are so rare in our state does not mean that South Carolinians need not be prepared for a winter weather emergency. Every home should be stocked with basic necessities in case a winter storm knocks out power and renders venturing out on the roadways unsafe. Water, non-perishable foods, flashlights, a battery-powered radio or television, plenty of extra batteries, extra blankets and warm clothes, a first-aid kit and supplies for any family member with special needs are among the essentials.
Most importantly, don't let severe winter weather catch you unawares. Keep your eyes and ears on local weather reports throughout the year, and during the volatile fall and winter months particularly. If severe weather is called for in your area, check reports more frequently, taking note of any severe weather watches or warnings that may be issued, and be ready to take action.
Fortunately, like snowflakes, no two snowstorms are exactly the same, and, here in the Palmetto State, blizzards like the storm of 1973 are rare exceptions to the rule. So, rather than fear the wrath of dangerous winter weather, we are free to pine for a white Christmas or a hot-cocoa-and-snowball-fight-filled day off from school.
Elizabeth Renedo is the managing editor of South Carolina Wildlife magazine.
Field Trip thanks park naturalist Elaine Freeman for help with this article.