'Very rare' freezing rain creates chaos on roads

Three UHP troopers were hit within three hours

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 9:55 a.m. MST

A driver fills out a police report after rolling her vehicle on the on-ramp to I-80 in Salt Lake County Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Freezing rain wreaked havoc on commuters Thursday, caused nearly 250 accidents, shut down the Salt Lake City International Airport for hours and generally baffled many who had never seen the stuff before.

Experts say freezing rain in Utah is rare.

And while Thursday may have marked the end of the icy precipitation, the 0.08 inches that had fallen by midday was the largest accumulation of freezing rain in almost 30 years, according to Trevor Alcott of the University of Utah. Alcott looks at conditions at the airport and reported that this was only the ninth incidence of freezing rain since 1940.

It was also the coldest measured, as the previous eight incidences occurred when temperatures were 26 degrees or warmer. Thursday's rain came in 20-degree weather.

KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman said the freezing rain is "very rare" for the Beehive state and can be explained best by one thing: the inversion.

"A lot of people, they see the fog and call that the inversion, but that's actually not accurate," Weyman said. "It's warm air above cold air. What warm air above cold air will do is trap whatever is in there. So if there's haze, if there's smog, it just gets trapped."

He said Utahns have seen this inversion for the past 10 days, and when it started to rain in the upper, warmer air, it came through and hit the cold valley air, creating freezing rain.

"It starts as rain and then it comes into the cold air and freezes," Weyman said. "So what it was doing in some cases it was rain on people's windshield, but it would freeze on contact with the surface. It was actually glazing ice on the bridges, the overpasses and stuff like that."

This is so unusual, he said, because storms that blow in usually come with enough wind to mix the cold and warm air and eliminate the inversion.

"If it weren't for this inversion, it would have been sprinkles and nobody would have cared," Weyman said. "But because of this colder pocket of air, it became an icy mess.

"You'd think since we often have inversion, it would happen more. … It was just the perfect storm of these really cold temperatures and this weak storm."

The unusual conditions led to a number of frustrations Thursday, especially for those on Utah's roads and those dependent on its largest airport.

Three Utah Highway Patrol troopers were also hit within three hours Thursday while responding to accidents on I-15 and all sustained minor injuries.

All airport runways were closed due to the weather conditions around 9:30 a.m. About that same time, a Frontier Airlines airplane slid while on the taxiway after losing traction while landing.

"We were about to close the runways, and that was an indication we needed to," said airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann, adding that airport officials had already noticed a decline in friction, which is how they monitor an aircraft's braking ability.

Passengers on the flight said they hardly noticed the slide and the airplane made it to its arrival gate. Gann said there was no damage to the airplane or injuries to passengers.

One of the airport's three runways reopened just before 1 p.m. and a second opened around 3:15 p.m. The runways handled both departures and arrivals.

Still, the situation caused a host of problems and Gann advised those with flights to check with their respective airlines for flight status information. With two conventions in Salt Lake City, she said hotel rooms were also scarce and suggested that those with rooms should stay in them and make sure their flights are leaving before venturing to the crowded airport.

There were multiple crashes on Utah's roadways spanning as far south as Spanish Fork.

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