WASHINGTON AREA WINTERS
SNOW, WIND, ICE AND COLD
By Barbara McNaught Watson
Washington's biggest winter
storms are the great "Nor'easters". They get their name
from the powerful northeast winds they produce. In order for a nor'easter
to give Washington a large amount of snow, there must first be a source of
cold air. High pressure builds over New England. Arctic air spreads south
from the center of the high into the Washington area. The dense, cold air
tries to move west over the Appalachian Mountains, but can not. It remains
trapped on the east side funneling south over the coastal plain. East of
the arctic air lies the warm water of the Gulf Stream. The contrast of the
cold air sinking into the Carolinas and warm air off the Carolina Coast
creates a breeding ground for storms. Combine the strong temperature
contrast with other meteorological conditions such as the right position
of the jet stream, and a storm's development can become
"explosive" (a sudden, rapid intensification; a dramatic drop in
the central pressure of the storm). Some meteorologists refer to this as a
For a good nor'easter to
develop, the jet stream usually enters the West Coast of the U.S. and
splits. The north branch of the jet stream crosses over the northern
Rockies and Canada. It supports the southward sinking cold air. The
southern branch dips down to the Gulf Coast states, then turns northeast
across Virginia and rejoins the north branch near Newfoundland. The south
branch of the jet stream carries a disturbance from the Gulf Coast to the
Carolina Coast where it intensifies into a
storm. Winds around the storm carry warm, moist air from over the ocean,
inland. The air rises up and over the arctic air on the coastal plain. It
cools and snow begins. The extent of the cold air and the storm's exact
track and speed become critical in properly forecasting and warning for
heavy snow across the greater Washington Metropolitan area. It is quite
common for the rain-snow line to fall right over the District of
Columbia. Heavy snow generally occurs in a narrow 50 mile-wide band
about 150 miles northwest of the low pressure center (represented as an
"L" on the diagram to the left). However, air rising up
into the mountains may intensify snowfall there and broaden the area of
heavy snow. Closer to the low, the warm ocean air changes the
precipitation over to sleet, freezing rain, and eventually rain. If the
forecasted storm track is off by just a little bit, it may mean the
difference between heavy rain, freezing rain or sleet (marked as mixed
precipitation in the diagram), and a foot or more of snow.
Winds around the storm become
intense. Inland, a blizzard may be brewing with visibility near zero in
blowing and falling snow and winds gusting over 35 mph. On the coast, even
stronger northeast winds blow near the storm's center. Large waves rack
the coast and erode the beaches. Sometimes water piles inland causing
major coastal flooding. Unlike a hurricane which usually comes and goes
within one tidal cycle, the nor'easter can linger through several tides.
Each tide piles more and more water on shore and into the bays and takes
more and more sand away.
Perhaps the strongest
nor'easter of this century struck on March 5-9, 1962. It is known
as the Ash Wednesday Storm. It caused over $200 million (1962
dollars) in property damage and major coastal erosion from North Carolina
to Long Island, NY. In New Jersey alone, it was estimated to have
destroyed or greatly damaged 45,000 homes. The Red Cross recorded that the
storm killed 40 people. It hit during "Spring Tide." When the
sun and moon are in phase, they produce a higher than normal astronomical
tide. Water reached nine feet at Norfolk (flooding begins around five
feet). Houses were toppled into the ocean and boardwalks were broken and
twisted. The islands of Chincoteague and Assateague were completely
underwater. Ocean City, Maryland sustained major damage especially to the
south end of the island. Winds up to 70 mph built 40-foot waves at sea.
Heavy snow fell in the Appalachian Mountains. Big Meadows, southeast of
Luray, recorded Virginia's greatest 24-hour snowfall with 33 inches and
the greatest single storm snowfall with 42 inches. Nearly two feet of snow
fell from Charlottesville (21 inches) to Luray (24 inches) to Winchester
(22 inches). Roads were blocked and electrical service was out for several
days. Washington fell into the mixed precipitation zone.
During January and February of
1994, the Washington region was struck by a series of ice storms.
This area had been long over due, but it was unprecedented to have several
ice storms occur one after the other. Ice storms are more common in the
valleys and foothills just east of the Appalachian Mountains than in
Washington and southern Maryland. Utility company records show the
frequency with which wires have fallen due to ice and needed repairing.
The set up for an ice storm is similar to that for snow. High pressure
sits over New England and cold dry air slides
south across the Washington region. The cold air tries to push west but
can not rise over the mountains. It becomes trapped on the east side. This
is called "cold air damming". A storm moves northeast
from the southern plains or Gulf Coast region. Instead of passing south
and east of Washington, it moves up the west slopes of the mountains.
Warm, moist air rises over the mountains and the trapped cold air on the
east side. Precipitation begins (See diagram).
The type of precipitation
depends on the depth of the cold air. At first it is often deep enough for
snow, but the warm air associated with the nearing storm erodes the cold
air to the east of the mountains. The cold air mass gets shallower and
shallower. Soon it is no longer snow, but rain, falling into cold air
(below 32° F). The rain droplets freeze into small ice pellets known as sleet.
When sleet hits the ground, it bounces and does not stick to objects.
Therefore, sleet is generally considered no more than a nuisance. However,
in February 1994, a winter storm dumped several inches of sleet over the
Frederick area -- enough to cause considerable problems on roadways.
Eventually, the cold air mass
is so shallow that the rain does not freeze until it hits the ground. Any
object with a temperature below 32°F will suddenly find a glaze of ice
accumulating on it. This is known as freezing rain and is
very dangerous. The glaze of ice on roadways and walkways is treacherous.
As ice accumulates on trees and wires, the weight eventually causes them
to break, knocking out power and phone service. Sometimes, so much ice can
accumulate that structural damage occurs to buildings and communication
towers collapse under its weight. After a horrific ice storm struck on
February 10-11, 1994, portions of Southern Maryland and central Virginia
were without power for a week from ice laden trees and wires falling.
The cold air damming pattern is
not uncommon during "La Nina" Winters, like the winter of
1998-1999. La Nina refers to colder than normal sea surface
temperatures in the equatorial Pacific region. Because the Pacific Ocean
is such a large body of water, the cold water phase (La Nina) and the warm
water phase (El Nino) have global climate impacts. In the Mid-Atlantic
Region of the U.S., both El Nino and La Nina tend to produce mild winters.
During the La Nina phase, nor'easters are a rare event and storms tend to
track up the western Appalachians or towards the Great Lakes. By contrast,
you can have several nor'easters in a single El Nino winter.
Other types of weather systems
generally bring only 1 to 4 inches of snow to the Washington Metropolitan
area. These storms include the "Alberta Clipper" (a fast moving
storm from the Alberta, Canada region) and cold fronts sweeping through
from the west. However, there are exceptions. On January 9, 1996, an
unusually strong Alberta Clipper passed through the metro area. This was
only a day after snow had ended from a great nor'easter which dropped up
to 2 feet on portions of the greater Washington area. While Virginia and
western Maryland saw only a trace to an inch of snow from the clipper, the
District and areas northeast to Baltimore received 4 to 5 inches of fresh
snow. The snow caused plows to move away from clearing secondary roads and
residential areas and go back to plowing the main arteries and emergency
routes. For more details, see the Blizzard of 1996. Another rare
type of storm struck the region on March 9, 1999. A very narrow, intense
band of snow set up from Winchester to Washington and remained stationary
through the whole day. There was no front or typical identifying weather
map features associated with it. In an area about 25 to 40 miles wide, an
unexpected 8 to 12 inches of snow fell. To the north and south of this
band, 4 to 6 inches fell.
Records go back a long time in the Washington area,
thanks to early record keeping by weather observers such as Benjamin
Franklin, James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Listed
below are just some of the historic winter storms to impact the
region. Some of the earliest storms were best documented by Weather
Historian David Ludlum in his books "Early American Winters"
published by the American Meteorological Society in Boston. Volume I :
1604-1820 in 1966 and Volume II : 1821 to 1870 in 1968. Weather
records of the National Weather Service also date back well into the
1800s, however, no records prior to 1872 are considered
WASHINGTON'S HISTORIC WINTER STORMS
AND COLD WAVES:
18th Century Winters
The Winter of 1732-33: In Maryland, it was described as a
hard winter with cold, frozen waterways, and snow. Ships at Annapolis had
to wait until March in order to put to sea.
January 26-28, 1772: This storm was named the Washington
and Jefferson Snow Storm since both of their diaries recorded it. The
snow began late Friday night on the 26th and was 5 to 6 inches deep by the
following morning. It continued for about 48 hours. The wind drifted the
snow. The storm left behind 3 feet of snow from Charlottesville, Virginia
northeast across Washington, DC and Annapolis, MD. Winchester measured 33
inches where the depth had not been affected by drifting. Official
weather records did not begin until after the Civil War. Therefore, this
storm is not listed as the record, but it remains the largest snow for
this area ever noted.
March 1772: The snowy winter continued with
two more snowstorms in March as witnessed by an observer in Carrollton, MD
(between Washington and Baltimore). Snow fell on March 11, 12, and 13
adding up to 17 inches on the ground. Additional snow on March 20th
brought the snow depth on the ground up to 20 inches.
May 4, 1774: Snow was reported in the Williamsburg
Gazette to have fallen in Dumfries, Virginia. George Washington's
weather diary also logged the occurrence at Mount Vernon, "It was a
cold day with spits of snow and a hard wind from the northwest."
Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville noted that the Blue Ridge Mountains
were covered with snow. The late snow and frost killed most of the fruit
crop. It also snowed north across Maryland and all the way north to
December 25, Christmas 1776: Thomas Jefferson, at his
home in Monticello, noted that the first winter snow fell on
December 20 but did not last on the ground. Then on Christmas eve, the
temperature dropped and did not rise above 30°F on Christmas Day. That
night, 22 inches of snow fell. In Frederick County, two feet of snow was
recorded. Jefferson wrote that from that night until the 7th of March was
the coldest winter remembered. From the 20th of December until March 6,
ten snows covered the ground, some of them deep. The first rain came on
the 9th of March.
"The Hard Winter of 1779-1780": This winter was
so cold that ice was said to have piled 20 feet high along the Virginia
Coast and stayed there until spring! The Chesapeake Bay was frozen
allowing people to walk from Annapolis to Poplar Island and Kent Island,
Maryland. Sleighs crossed the ice from Baltimore to Annapolis. Loaded
vehicles crossed from Annapolis to the Eastern Shore. Jefferson noted that
such a hard freeze of the bay had not been noted before even during the
"Hard Winter of 1740-1741." The ice did not break in Baltimore
Harbor until March 9th. The Potomac River was solid ice as well. In
March, a regiment of the Virginia Infantry marched from Falmouth to
Fredericksburg. They walked across ice on the Rappahannock River which was
stated to had been frozen since the previous November.
The Long Winter of 1783-84: Ice closed the channels
of the Chesapeake Bay longer than any other winter. Baltimore Harbor was
sealed with ice on January 2nd and did not begin to break up until March
25th. George Washington wrote on January 22, that the region had been
locked in snow and ice since Christmas. Again on March 5th, he complained
of being locked up in his cottage due to frost and snow since arriving
Christmas eve. The ice break up on the Potomac occurred on March 15. The
ice flows were said to have done a lot of damage to Georgetown.
19th Century Winters
May 8, 1803: Washington, DC saw several days
of unusually cold weather in early May with frost and ice forming for
several nights in a row and even some snow was seen (it is assumed to have
only been a trace). The snowfall increased to the north. New England
received a few inches. Thunder was reported with snow in Philadelphia and
caused damage to trees.
January 6-7, 1821: A nor'easter dumped heavy snow
from the Shenandoah Valley northeast across New Jersey. Winchester
reported 8 inches, John Quincey Adams at the White House in Washington
reported 12 to 18 inches, 14 inches fell in Baltimore and 18 inches in
Philadelphia. Behind the storm, clear skies brought nighttime temperatures
down to 0°F in DC. Temperatures remained below normal for the rest of the
January 14-16, 1831: This storm was declared "The
Great Snowstorm" because of the wide extent of deep snow from
Georgia to Maine and west into Ohio. David Ludlum in Early American
Winters II describes that east of the crest of the Appalachians, the
snow amounts go from heavy to excessive. He quotes from the Winchester
Republican "Never was such a storm known here, nor does any
person whom we have seen, remember to have witnessed one more severe
elsewhere." An observer in Alexandria stated that nothing since 1809
even approached the fury of this storm. A weather observer in Gettysburg
measured 30 inches of snow. Washington, DC recorded 13 inches of snow with
much higher amounts occurring to the north and west of the city. In West
Chester, PA, three feet of snow fell and high winds created 20 foot
January 4-5, 1835: Washington, DC recorded -16°F and the
Potomac River was frozen over as was the Chesapeake Bay for the first time
in 50 years. Baltimore reach -10°F and Hagerstown -12°F. Washington's
low temperature would not be neared until the "Great Arctic
Outbreak of 1899" when the official Washington low temperature
reached a record -15°F.
December 22-23, 1839: This was the second
nor'easter of the season to reach hurricane force at sea causing many ship
wrecks and lives lost. It was the first nor'easter of the season to impact
the Washington area with heavy snow. Snow began around 3 a.m. in
Washington. The wind increased to gale proportions during the day (the
term blizzard was not yet used until after 1870 to describe this type of
wind and snow storm). Snow continued until the following morning
accumulating about 10 inches in the city. Amounts were much higher to the
north and west with reports of 2 feet of snow in Frederick, MD. Baltimore
received 16 inches of snow mixed with a little rain and sleet to form a
very compact mass.
January 16-18, 1857: This was the "Great Cold
Storm". More than a foot of snow fell with temperatures near in
the single digits. Strong winds caused structural damage on land and
wrecked ships at sea. Great drifts blocked transportation through the
region. In Washington, snow depths were estimated at 18 to 24 inches with
drifts four feet deep. Two feet was also reported in Baltimore with some
drifts as high as 6 to 10 feet. In the mountains and valleys west of the
cities, this time lesser snow amounts occurred. Winchester reported 8
inches. Richmond was cut off from Washington for seven days with drifts up
to 8 feet. Norfolk was buried under 20 foot drifts of snow! Temperatures
well below zero followed the storm. The average temperature for the month
in Frederick, MD was only 20.4°F. The cold was so extreme that all rivers
and the Chesapeake Bay froze over. The Bay was solid ice a mile and a half
from its coastline. At Cape Henry (mouth of the Chesapeake), one could
walk 100 yards from the lighthouse on the frozen ocean.
February 6-10, 1861: While little else occurred this
winter, a dramatic fall and rise of temperatures occurred during a 96 hour
period. Near Lake Ontario, a 70° fall to -40° was followed by a 95°
rise to 55°. The temperature dropped 41° to the single digits within
four hours of the arctic cold front passing through New York City. In
Baltimore and Washington, the temperature fall was not quite as extreme
but the wind was notable. Gale force winds followed the front doing great
structural damage. In Baltimore, 30 houses were unroofed. In Washington,
work had been proceeding on the Capitol dome and a great crowd had
gathered at the House of Representatives to watch when the high winds
struck. One of the derricks being used to finish the work was blown over.
January 21, 1863: A severe coastal storm dropped heavy
rains on the Fredericksburg area. It rained 30 hours dropping over two
inches. The ground soaked it in creating a deep mud. So deep that mules
and horses died trying to move men and equipment through it. The rivers
also rose and became too swift to cross. It disrupted the Union Army
offensive operation in the ill-famed "Mud March".
December 1880: Parts of western and central Maryland
received nearly two feet of snow which aided in plummeting temperatures.
The coldest temperatures occurred between December 30, 1880, and January
1, 1881. Baltimore dropped to -6°F, Emmitsburg -19° F, Woodstock (Howard
County) -17° F, and Northwest Washington, DC was -15° F. The official
site in DC recorded -7° on the 30th and -13°F on the 31st making it the
coldest New Year's Eve on record only to be followed by -14°F on January
1, 1881, the coldest New Year's Day.
March 11-13, 1888: The "Blizzard of '88"
was also known as the "White Hurricane". The storm
followed cold temperatures in Washington with a record low of 10°F on the
6th. Snow began the morning of March 11 and by evening, the city and
surrounding area was an ice entangled mess with fallen tree limbs,
electric lines and downed telegraph poles. The city was completely blacked
out with the exception of a few gas lights. On the morning of the 12th,
people arose to find a half foot of snow and ice blanketing the city.
Winds blew up to 48 mph taking down any utility poles left standing. All
communication was cut off to the outside world. It took a week to restore
the links and for Washington to find out that Baltimore and New York had
been hit even harder. By storms end, New York was buried under 21 inches
of snow. Temperatures had been in the single digits and teens and the wind
roared at 35 mph with gusts up to 75 mph blowing drifts to 20 feet deep
burying some homes and buildings.
The strong northwest winds behind the storm blew so hard that they
emptied the Tidal Potomac. Boat builders said that low tide was five feet
below normal. Only a small channel down the middle of the river contained
water that soon froze. Dust was seen blowing along the dried out riverbed!
In Baltimore, the low tides grounded ships at their docks. Without
telegraph, officials reverted to sending messages by signal lamps from one
old watch tower to another. On the Chesapeake Bay, the water was at its
lowest tide on record preventing ships from sailing up it. Most of the
craft that were on the bay were driven to shore in the winds causing
serious damage or complete loss. At least 40 mariners died, most of which
were on oyster dredges that either capsized or were thrown onto the shore.
On the coast of Maryland and Virginia, there was flooding that submerged
an entire island washing away a large herd of cattle that had been
December 26, 1890: Washington recorded 10.0 inches
February 1899: The "Great Arctic Outbreak of
1899" and the "Great Eastern Blizzard of '99"
occurred this month. A snowstorm struck the Washington area on February 8
dumping 14 inches of snow. Extreme cold settled in behind the storm.
Washington record -7°F on the 9th and -8°F on the 10th. The coldest day
in most areas was the 11th. Quantico recorded a record low of -20° F,
Washington, DC recorded -15° F (official record low to date), and
Baltimore -7°F. The blizzard struck on Valentine's Day dropping 21 inches
in Washington and Baltimore. Winds drove the snow into 10 foot drifts.
These blocked transportation lines into the city causing a major coal
shortage that resulted in rationing. Food was also rationed, though not as
severely as the coal. The storm had given Washington a snow depth of 34
inches (almost 3 feet) and the city recorded its greatest monthly snow
total with 35.2 inches. Its greatest seasonal snowfall total was reached
that season with 54.4 inches. Warrenton recorded 54 inches (four and a
half feet) just during the month of February, setting a state record for
monthly snowfall. Following the Valentine's blizzard, the low temperature
in Washington again fell below zero reaching -6°F on the 15th. That
winter (1898-1899) was so cold over a large part of the US that ice flowed
from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico! The only other time
that this has been seen was on February 13, 1784, when ice flows blocked
the Mississippi River at New Orleans and then passed into the Gulf of
20th Century Winters
First Half: 1900-1950
January 16-18, 1900: Washington recorded 11.3 inches of
The Year of 1904: This year recorded the most days with
minimum temperatures of 32°F or colder reaching 118 days in Washington or
almost one third of the year.
March-April, 1907: On March 22, the temperature reached
90° F in Northwest Washington, DC and 88° F in College Park. The next
day, DC recorded 93° F and on the 29th 90° F again. The average
temperature for the last 10 days of March was 62° F. By April 2, the
minimum temperature fell to 23° F and for the first 22 days of the month,
the temperature averaged only 44° F. The cool spell continued through May
December 22-23, 1908: Washington recorded 11.5
inches of snow.
January 13-14, 1912 Record Cold Wave: A record cold wave
settled in over the state. The cold wave hit on January 5 and continued
until February 16. It was one of the most severe and longest in duration
on record. Records set during this period remain to the present. On
January 13, Oakland in far western Maryland recorded the state's all
time record low temperature of -40°F. Washington reached -8°F. On
the 14th, College Park reported -26°F, Hagerstown -27°F, Frederick
-21°F, Laurel -19°F, Tacoma Park -8°F, Baltimore -2°F and Washington,
March 1-2, 1914: A nor'easter moved up the Atlantic
Coast with intense winds that blew roofs off in Baltimore and knocked down
telephone and telegraph wires, signs, and awnings. The snowfall was light,
but the temperatures were cold. Sustained winds of 44 mph were recorded in
Baltimore and gusts were certainly higher. The Clear Springs observer in
western Maryland recorded "...severest windstorm we have ever known
occurred. The wind continued for 36 hours at almost hurricane force
blowing down many barns and houses." Frederick also noted much damage
as did Solomons to the southeast of Washington.
The Winter of 1917-1918: The temperature departure
for the period December 1 to January 31 is one of the coldest. On December
30th, temperatures around the region fell below zero. It was the coldest
New Year's Holiday since January 1, 1881. Baltimore reached -2°F,
Cheltenham -7°F, College Park -12°F, Rockville -11°F, and Washington,
DC -3°F. The high temperature at Baltimore remains a record low for the
month with it reaching only 10°F. January well above normal snowfall
(22.6 inches for the month in Washington) and many areas had snow on the
ground through the month. Ice formed in the rivers and harbors. By the
close of January, heavy ice was down the Bay and the Potomac to mouth of
the Potomac. Some temperatures included 1°F on January 1, Rockville
dropped to -12°F on the 4th, Annapolis -4°F and Baltimore 0°F on
February 5, College Park was -10°F, Rockville -10°F, great Falls -12°
and DC was -2°F on the 5th. Ice on the Upper Bay did not clear until
February 20th. Even April that year saw two days with snow on the
March 29, 1921: In Washington, an early spring abruptly
ended when a cold front passed through. On March 28, it was 82° F at noon
in Washington. The temperature fell to 26° F by the morning of the 29th:
a fall of 56° F in less than 24 hours. In College Park, the temperature
fell from 83° F to 25°F and reached a minimum of 20° F on the 30th. The
warm temperatures early in the year caused an early bloom on the fruit
trees in the state. The sudden downfall of temperatures in early April
caused great damage to the crop for the year.
January 27-29, 1922: Exactly 150 years after the "Washington
and Jefferson Storm" came the deepest snow of this century
to hit parts of Virginia. This storm is Washington's record snowfall. It
came on the heals of a cold spell. High temperatures did not climb above
freezing from the 24 through the 28th and the low temperature dipped to
11°F on the 26th. Snow began at 4:30 p.m. on the 27th and continued until
just past midnight on the morning of the 29th. A record 21 inches fell in
a 24 hour period on the 28th. The heavy band of snow stretched across
Richmond (19 inches), Washington, DC (28 inches), and Baltimore (25
inches) immobilizing the region. Strong north to northeast winds
accompanied the storm drifting snow into deep banks. Roads were blocked.
Main highways were the first to open in 2 to 4 days.
evening of the 28th, the weight of the snow became too much for the
Knickerbocker Theater on 18th Street and Columbia in Northwest Washington,
DC. The horrible scene was described in the Washington Post on
January 29th and 30th and was reprinted in the Post on January 19,
1996 following another big snow. They described it as "the greatest
disaster in Washington's History". The theater was cramped with an
estimated 900 movie goers. The roof of the theater collapsed taking the
balcony down with it and crushing 98 people below to death and injuring
another 158. People were pulled from the rubble for hours and bodies were
pulled out for days. A small boy squeezed into small holes and between
crumbled cement slabs to give those injured and trapped pain pills. From
this disaster, the storm is known historically as the "Knickerbocker
April 1, 1924: This "April Fools Day Storm"
produced the latest recorded major snowfall (4 or more inches). Baltimore
recorded over 9 inches of snow and Washington received 5 inches. The
latest snow ever recorded at Baltimore was a trace on May 9, 1923. In
Washington, the latest snow was seen on May 10, 1906, when a trace fell.
October 1925: Two damaging wind storms and a record early
snow occurred this month. The first "northwest blow" occurred on
the 10th. It uprooted trees and blew off fruit. It caused blow-out tides
(unusually low water) on the western tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. A
"westerly blow" occurred on the 25th and was of even greater
intensity. Again, trees were uprooted and snapped and much fruit was blown
down from the apple orchard. With this storm, the damages went much
further...telephone poles and signs were blown down; rowboats and launches
were set adrift; 17 to 23 Navy seaplanes were forced ashore and damaged
from anchorage off Dundalk; several buildings were unroofed in Bel Air and
barns were blown down; a 10 year old boy in Baltimore was killed by a
falling tree; outbuildings and sheds were lost; chimneys blown down; and
windows were broken. On October 30th, an early snow storm struck the
region. Washington recorded 2.2 inches and Baltimore 2.5 inches. Three to
five inches was commonly reported by cooperative observers across
Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties in Maryland.
January 29-30, 1930: Washington recorded 11.5
inches of snow.
December 17, 1932: Washington record 12.0 inches if
January 23, 1935: Washington recorded 11.3 inches of
February 7, 1936: Over 14 inches of snow fell in the
Washington area in a heavy snow band that stretched from the Virginia
mountains across southern Washington, southern Maryland and the Lower
Eastern Shore where 12 to 18 inches of snow fell. The heavy snow helped to
set up the "Great Spring Flood of March 1936", on the
Potomac River. It was one of Washington's worst floods.
November 24-25, 1938: Early heavy snowstorm dumped 7
inches in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia and as much a
one to 2.5 feet of snow in western Maryland and the Virginia mountains. It
was the largest snow of record for November.
The heavy snow hit from Virginia to New England. Hundred of automobiles
were snowbound on the highway during the
Thanksgiving Holiday travel period.
March 29-30, 1942: The "Palm Sunday
Snowstorm"was another seasonal late comer. Baltimore received its
greatest snow in 20 years with 22 inches measured. Washington recorded
11.5 inches. Hagerstown recorded 22 inches in 24 hours.
20th Century Winters
Second Half: 1950-1999
November 6-7, 1953: This is the earliest recorded major
snow (4 or more inches) with 5.9 inches recorded in Baltimore. The
earliest measurable snowfall in both Baltimore and Washington, DC was 0.3
inches on October 10, 1979, during the World Series. Trace amounts in
Baltimore also fell on October 9, 1895, and 1903, and in Washington on
Oct. 5, 1892.
December 3-4, 1957: Washington recorded 11.4 inches of
snow to kick of an early stormy and snowy winter.
February 15-16 and March 20-21, 1958: Over 13 inches of
snow fell in the Washington area on February 15-16. Another nor'easter
struck on March 21, but the heavy snow fell northeast of Washington. With
the March storm, Westminister had 28 inches of snow on the ground and a
total of 42 inches for the month.
The Winter of 1960-1961: As in the last couple winters,
the Mid Atlantic saw a very stormy season with seven storms between mid
December and mid March. The first one was December 10-12, 1960.
Heavy snow and high winds hit from Virginia into New York. In Virginia,
snow fall ranged from 4 to 13 inches in the north and west. There were
seven fatalities. The next snowstorm struck on January 19-20 from North
Carolina to New York. Virginia saw up to 12 inches. It caused a great
traffic jam in northern and central Virginia and DC. Two deaths were
blamed on the storm in Virginia, due to overexertion and accidents. The
third storm struck February 3-5 and hit like a blizzard with severe cold
and gale force winds. Eight inches fell in Washington with as much as 36
inches in New York. There four fatalities in Virginia. The fourth storm
hit February 12-15 dropping 6 inches to a foot all the way from Louisiana
to Canada. There six fatalities attributed to the storm in Virginia. The
fifth storm struck February 18-20 and dropped up to two feet in the
western Virginia mountains. The sixth storm hit March 2-5 and dropped 4 to
20 inches in Virginia. Twelve deaths were attributed to the storm in
Virginia. The seventh storm struck on March 8-10. It dropped 10 inches in
Georgia and up to 24 inches in Kentucky. Four to 15 inches fell across
Virginia with drifts much higher. North Carolina recorded drifts from 3 to
30 feet! The last four storms came in just four weeks. Many buildings
collapsed from the accumulative weight of the snow and structural damage
totaled into the millions.
January 30-31, 1966: The "Blizzard of 1966" struck
Washington and the Northeast U.S. One to two feet of snow covered a large
part of Virginia and Maryland: Fredericksburg - 15.5 inches; Manassas - 13
inches; Washington - 14 inches (added to a previous snow, the depth on the
ground came to 20 inches); and Baltimore - 12 inches. Intense blowing and
drifting snow continued and kept roads closed for several more days
crippling transportation lines and causing a food shortage and rationing.
January 1977: The "Bicentennial Winter"
was the coldest seen on the East Coast since before the founding of
the republic. In Washington, the snow began on January 4, just as the
Carter Administration was moving into town. New storms dropped a few more
inches every few days to put a fresh coating on the streets that were just
clearing from the previous storm. It gave a clean look to the piles of
dirty snow that were accumulating along roadways and in parking lots. The
Tidal Potomac (salt water) froze solid, enough that people could skate
across it near the Memorial Bridge. The average temperature in Washington
for the month of January was 25.4° F which was the coldest since 1856
when the temperature averaged 21.4° F. The normal January average
temperature for Washington is 34.6° F. The winter produced the greatest
number of consecutive days on record with a low temperature below 32°F.
It lasted 48 days from December 27 through February 12. The
prolonged cold wave caused oil and natural gas shortages. President Carter
asked people to turn thermostats down to conserve energy. Washington did
not see the heavy snow that the Great Lake region experienced that winter.
Cold winds blowing across the warm lakes brought 68 inches of snow to
Buffalo, NY. Washington recorded 10 inches of snow in January, but none
fell the rest of the winter ending it 5.5 inches below normal. The cold
wave penetrated into the South. On January 19, snowflakes were seen in
February 18-19, 1979: "The Presidents Day Storm"
was considered the worst storm in 57 years to strike the Washington area.
Snow depths from the storm were up to 20 inches over Northern Virginia and
Maryland. At times, snow was falling 2 to 3 inches per hour and
temperatures were in the single digits to teens. Huge tractors and other
farm machinery had been driven to the Mall in DC to protest for higher
agricultural pricing. When the storm hit, the farmers used their equipment
to help the locals dig out of the nearly two feet of snow. Four deaths
occurred in Virginia, which were attributed to heart attacks due to stress
from overexertion during and after the storm, and 18 injuries occurred
from falls on ice.
February 11-12, 1983: This storm beat the Presidents Day
Storm and was the second greatest snowfall of record for the Washington
area. It covered an unusually large portion of Virginia and Maryland with
more than a foot of snow. The storm set a new 24 hour snowfall record in
Lynchburg, Virginia, with 14.6 inches, Roanoke with 18.6 inches and
Baltimore, Maryland with 22.8 inches. Parts of Northern Virginia measured
as much as 30 inches on the ground. Washington, DC officially recorded 17
inches at National Airport, but 2 feet of snow fell in surrounding
suburbs. Winds gusted over 25 mph all day on February 11 causing drifts up
to five feet. The heavy snow and winds paralyzed the region. The cost of
clearing the snow from Virginia roads came to $9 million.
November 11, 1987: The "Veteran's Day Storm"
will not be forgotten by many Washington travelers. Almost a foot
(11.5 inches) fell at National Airport. Prince Georges County, MD was hard
hit with up to 13 inches of snow falling in a short amount of time. It
caught motorists off guard and stranded cars on the Capitol Beltway. There
were so many cars that snow plows could not get through to open the
clogged arteries. Cars littered the roadway for more than 24 hours. The
event precipitated the development of the Washington Metropolitan Area
Snow Plan to facilitate preparedness and response to future storms.
This storm struck before the days of lightning detection networks and
Doppler weather radar. When thunderstorms began dumping heavy snow over
the Fredericksburg VA, forecasters had no idea. The storm moved northeast
across the southern Metropolitan area (Prince Georges County). It was not
until the fast accumulating snow hit Camp Springs, where at the time the
Weather Forecast Office was located, did forecasters realize what was
March 13-14, 1993: The "Superstorm of March
1993"had a large area of impact that went all the way from
Florida and Alabama north through New England. The storm was blamed for
some 200 deaths and cost two billion dollars to repair damages and remove
snow. In Florida, the storm produced an ocean surge of 9 to 12 feet that
killed 11 people on the panhandle (more deaths than the storm surge from
Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew) and it spawned 11 tornadoes. In a large swath
from Alabama to New England, it dropped over a foot of snow. In the Mid
Atlantic region, weather stations recorded their lowest pressure ever as
the storm's center passed.
The March 1993 storm was not "the storm of the
century" for Washington. Washington had seen greater snowfall and
more damage by past storms. The Washington area saw 8 inches to the
southeast of the city, 13 inches in the District and within the beltway,
and 18 inches north and west of the city in Loudoun, Frederick and
portions of Montgomery Counties. Unlike most winter storms that along up
the coast, this storm took a more inland track across Richmond and the
Chesapeake Bay. Extreme southwest Virginia saw 30 to 42 inches of snow
where some roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow. Winds produced
blizzard conditions over portions of northern Virginia and central and
western Maryland with snow drifts up to 12 feet! Interstates shut down.
Shelters opened for nearly 4000 stranded travelers and those that left
without heat and electricity. The National Guard was called to help with
emergency transport and critical snow removal. Eleven people died in
Virginia, one in the District, and one in Maryland during and immediately
following the storm. The deaths were mainly from heart attacks brought on
by overexertion while shoveling snow or from exposure and hypothermia.
Snow removal and clean-up costs were estimated at $16 million in Virginia,
$22 million in Maryland, and $500,000 in the District of Columbia.
January-February, 1994: These two months saw an unusual
assault of ice storms on the Washington area. It began in mid January with
an arctic blast that sent temperatures below zero over northern Virginia
and western and central Maryland for a couple of mornings. On January 19,
DC reached -4°F for a low and Baltimore recorded a record low high
temperature (for the month) of only 5°F. The sudden cold wave shot up the
use of electricity and natural gas. The effect was over such a large
portion of the Eastern US that the power companies went into rolling black
outs so as not to lose the grid entirely and requested people to conserve
Between mid January and mid February, about a dozen storms hit dropping
snow, sleet, and freezing rain. The most devastating storm struck
February 10-11 leaving a coat of ice, one to three inches thick, from
freezing rain and sleet! The hardest hit was an area from near
Fredericksburg across southern Maryland and Annapolis. Some counties lost
10 percent of their trees from the heavy ice. Roads were blocked and
impassable. Electric and phone lines were down with as much as 90 percent
of the area's people without power. Even with help from out-of-state
utility companies, many people were without power for a week. A
presidential disaster declaration was given. Damages were estimated at
near 100 million dollars for the region. There were numerous injuries from
automobile accidents and people falling on ice. It was likely the iciest
winter the Washington area has ever seen.
January 7-13, 1996: The "Blizzard of
1996" or the "Great Furlough Storm" began early
on Sunday, January 7. Just two days earlier, an impasse between a
republican congress and a democratic president over the 1996 Federal
Budget had finally come to an end. Many federal employees had been on
furlough with government offices shut down for almost a month. Employees
would finally return to work on Monday, January 8. However, mother nature
did not cooperate. By Monday morning, Washington, DC was buried under 17
to 21 inches of snow. Thirty to 36 inches of snow fell over Frederick and
western Loudoun Counties. Baltimore recorded over 22 inches and even Ocean
City received 10 inches of snow. The entire region was paralyzed and the
Federal Government remained shut down. As road crews worked hard to clear
the snow, an "Alberta Clipper" shot through on Tuesday, January
9 dumping an additional 3 to 5 inches from Washington northeast through
Baltimore. Plows that would have been working on secondary roads and
residential areas were sent back to the primary roads. The government
remained shut for 4 days that week and many schools and businesses
announced their closure for the entire week. A third storm struck on
Friday, January 12 dumping another 4 to 6 inches over the metro area. A
maximum of 6 to 12 inches of snow fell over Frederick Counties. By the
week's end, most of the Washington area was buried under 2 to 3 feet of
snow! (See map shown above).
Washington Winter Statistics
Average Snowfall =
16.6 inches at National ; 22.8 inches at Dulles
Average Monthly Snowfall:
Earliest Snowfall =
Trace on Oct. 5, 1892; .03 inches on Oct. 10, 1979
Latest Snowfall =
Trace on May 10, 1906; .5 inches on Apr. 28, 1898
Biggest Snowstorm = 28
inches, Jan. 1922 (official); 36 inches, Jan. 1772 (unofficial)
Snow Cover: Greatest Number of
Consecutive Days with an inch or more on the ground
4 days from November 25 through 28, 1938
|December: 20 days from
December 8 through 27, 1989
21 days from January 5 through 25, 1893
26 days from February 1 through 26, 1905
12 days from March 3 through 14, 1960
Snowiest Month =
35.2 inches during Feb. 1899.
Snowiest Seasons =
54.4 inches during 1898-1899 winter.
46.0 inches during 1995-1996 winter.
Season with the Least Snow =
only 0.1 inches of snow fell in 1972-1973.
Coldest Temperature =
-15° F on Feb. 11, 1899
Top Dozen Washington Snowstorms
|1) 28.0 inches Jan. 27-29, 1922
||7) 14.4 inches Feb. 7, 1936
|2) 20.5 Feb. 11-13, 1899
||8) 13.8 Jan 29-30, 1966
|3) 18.7 Feb. 18-19, 1979
||9) 13.7 Feb. 8, 1899
|4) 17.1 Jan. 6-8, 1996
||10) 12.0 Dec. 17, 1932
|5) 16.6 Feb. 11-12, 1983
||11) 12.0 Mar. 27-28, 1891
|6) 14.4 Feb. 15-16, 1958
||12) 11.5 Nov. 11, 1987
A Look at the Average Annual Snowfall across
the Greater Washington Area
National Disaster Survey Report: Superstorm of
March 1993 , Dept. of Commerce,
NOAA, NWS, May 1994.
National Disaster Survey Report: The Great
Nor'easter of December 1992 , Dept. of
Commerce, NOAA, NWS, June 1994.
David M. Ludlum. Early American Winters:
1604-1820. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1966. pp. 47, 65,
83, 115, 146, 148, 151-153.
David M. Ludlum. Early American Winters II : 1821
to 1870. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1968. pp. 4, 11-13,
20, 33-37, 58, 65, 68, 113, 115, 127-129.
David M. Ludlum. The American Weather Book.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,
1982, pp. 9-10, 16, 29-31, 54.
"Some Outstanding Snowstorms" L.S.
6211, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Weather Bureau, Dec. 1962.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS,
January and February 1979.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS,
NCDC, Feb. 1983.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS,
NCDC, March 1993.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS,
NCDC, Feb. 1994.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS,
NCDC, Jan. and Feb., 1996.
East Coast Storm: March 5-9, 1962 - A Preliminary
Report and Special Weather Bulletins Issued. US Dept. of Commerce,
Weather Bureau, March 1962.
News Journal, Wilmington, DE, Sept. 18, 1994.
Frederick Post, Nancy Lewis, Frederick, MD,
Feb. 13, 1994.
Mary Cable. The Blizzard of '88. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988,
pp. 58, 93-94, 165, 168, 191.
Larry Savadove and Margaret Thomas Buchholz. Great
Storms of the Jersey Shore.
Harvey Cedars, NJ: Down The Shore Publishing and The
Sandpiper, Inc., 1993.
The Climate Handbook for Washington, DC. US
Dept. of Commerce, Weather Bureau,
Tech. Paper #8, 1949.
Local Climatic Data for Washington, DC. Dept.
of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1994.
Local records from the Washington DC Forecast
Office, DOC, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Baltimore, MD. Dept.
of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1993.
Local records from the Baltimore Weather Service
Office, DOC, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Easton, MD. Dept. of
Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Cumberland, MD. Dept.
of Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Frostburg, MD. Dept.
of Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Hagerstown, MD. Dept.
of Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Westminister, MD.
Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Bel Air, MD. Dept. of
Commerce, NOAA, NWS.
Maryland and Delaware Monthly Climate Summaries
published by the Weather Bureau from 1905 through 1922.
A special thanks goes to the staff at the Sterling
Forecast Office for their help: in particular, meteorologist Dave Gustin
for helping me identify some of the major storms to affect the Washington
area and meteorologists Dewey Walston and Melody Hall for gathering some
of the climate statistics.
Last updated November 17, 1999
December 30, 2005