A fast-moving winter storm barreled through the Mid-Atlantic and into the Northeast on Wednesday, with snow piling up and mixing with sleet and stiff winds to create hazardous road conditions in the affected areas.
A pileup involving dozens of cars on Interstate 80 in Clinton County, Pa., resulted in two deaths, the state police said. A spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police said a 19-year-old man had died in a car crash, one of about 200 the state police had responded to by 3 p.m.
In New York City, a multicar collision on an already salted stretch of road just south of a bridge linking Manhattan to the Bronx left a half-dozen people hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, officials said.
As the night wore on, the storm, as had been forecast, was proving to be one of the biggest in New York, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities since a crippling 2016 blizzard.
“Everything that was predicted is right on track,” David Stark, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in New York, said Wednesday evening. Central Park had gotten 2.6 inches of snow by then, the Weather Service said.
The snow had started to stick in New York City several hours earlier and was expected to come with growing intensity until around midnight, Mr. Stark said. At that point, he added, the precipitation would most likely shift to a mix of snow and sleet.
In a subsequent interview, Mr. Stark said the change from snow to sleet might happen earlier than had been anticipated and that the accumulation of snow in the city might end up on the lower end of the eight to 12 inches that had been forecast.
By 11:30 p.m. in Upper Manhattan, the precipitation had turned to a mixture of snow, rain and sleet that was beginning to crust the drifts between parked cars. Temperatures in the mid-20s and sharp gusts of wind made walking just a short distance unpleasant.
In Philadelphia, where snow gave way to sleet in the afternoon, there were reports of five inches in Rittenhouse Square and close to six inches at Philadelphia International Airport.
The storm, a nor’easter, hit first in Maryland, Virginia and the Washington area, with a mixture of freezing rain and snow blanketing the region. Near Frederick County, Md., dozens of cars could barely inch forward on a packed highway. In Washington, about 50 miles southeast, the snow seemed to be turning to slush.
The storm was expected to stretch nearly 1,000 miles, from North Carolina to New England, according to the National Weather Service, and threatened to fell trees, knock out power and cover roadways with ice (few outages had been reported by 9 p.m.). Western Maryland and southern central Pennsylvania were forecast to bear the brunt of the storm, with as much as two feet of snow falling in those areas.
A municipal snow plow struck and killed a man in western Pennsylvania late on Wednesday afternoon, the authorities said. The episode happened just before 5 p.m. in North Versailles, Pa., about 13 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, according to local media reports, which said that the man had been operating a snow blower when the public works plow backed into him.
Schools that have been holding in-person classes, including in New York City and Boston, either closed or announced plans to do so. Snow forced some coronavirus testing sites in the Baltimore area to close temporarily, and two city-sponsored mobile testing sites in Boston were also closed.
Matt Otten, the manager at Zaftigs Delicatessen, a Boston restaurant known for its Jewish comfort food, said he typically would not close because of bad weather. This time, though, he was worried. “We are concerned for our workers’ safety since the roads are going to be very treacherous,” he said.
The first major winter storm of the season made its way up the East Coast on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, and like everything in 2020, it was made more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Hospitals in the storm’s path, already struggling with overloaded intensive care units and emergency departments from Covid-19 hospitalizations, delayed elective surgeries to keep beds available. Several major cities, including Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., temporarily shut down coronavirus testing sites in anticipation of heavy snow and wind.
The storm also threatened the timely delivery of a coronavirus vaccine, just as the first inoculations of health care workers began this week. St. Luke’s University Health Network, which operates 12 hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, expected to receive its first vaccine delivery on Thursday, but a spokesman said there was a possibility it would be delayed by the storm.
While hundreds of school districts announced that they would close Wednesday and Thursday because of the storm, others found online learning honed during the pandemic to be the perfect substitute for a snow day, disappointing students who hoped for a day off.
Even the usual headaches of flight delays — hundreds of flights were canceled on Wednesday — came with new worries because of the virus. Chloe Cho, 22, was supposed to fly home from Boston to Chicago on Thursday, but the storm caused her to delay her trip an extra day.
“I am not thrilled,” she said. “I usually don’t mind waiting in airports, but now I’m scared because of Covid that I’m going to have to sit around and wait for my flight due to the storm.”
With a major winter storm bearing down on the Eastern United States, you can expect some people (and, perhaps inevitably, President Trump), to ask, “What happened to global warming?”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change does have an effect on storms, though the relationship can be complex and, yes, counterintuitive. “There were these expectations that winter was basically going to disappear on us,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at AER, a company that provides information to clients about weather and climate-related risk.
Although winters are becoming warmer and somewhat milder overall, extreme weather events have also been on the increase, and especially in the Northeastern United States, as Dr. Cohen pointed out in a recent paper in the journal Nature Communications. From the winter of 2008-9 until 2017-18, there were 27 major Northeast winter storms, three to four times the totals for each of the previous five decades.
One of the factors potentially feeding storms is a warmer atmosphere, which can hold more water vapor; not only can that mean more precipitation, but when the vapor forms clouds, “it releases heat into the air, which provides fuel for storms,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Also potentially important, but less understood, she noted, is “the increased tendency for the jet stream to take big swoops north and south,” setting up weather phenomena like the dreaded polar vortex.
Does that mean this particular storm has been fueled by climate change? Jonathan E. Martin, a professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cautioned against drawing quick conclusions.
Because of the “enormous natural variability” in storms and the weather they deliver, “I think it is a dangerous business attributing individual winter storms, or characteristics of them, to climate change,” he said. And this storm in particular, he added, is getting a lot of its moisture from water vapor evaporated off the Atlantic Ocean, which complicates the picture.
Dr. Francis agreed that any connections are complex, but added, “all storms now form in a greatly altered climate, so there’s little doubt that the same storm decades ago would not be the same.”