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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 "bomb".
        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 picture of typical winter low pressure system 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 picture of how cold air damming worksslides 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 32F 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 "official".

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 New York.

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 30F 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 0F in DC. Temperatures remained below normal for the rest of the month.

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 drifts.

January 4-5, 1835: Washington, DC recorded -16F and the Potomac River was frozen over as was the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in 50 years. Baltimore reach -10F and Hagerstown -12F. Washington's low temperature would not be neared until the "Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899" when the official Washington low temperature reached a record -15F.

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 20.4F. 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 -6F, 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 -13F on the 31st making it the coldest New Year's Eve on record only to be followed by -14F 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 10F 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 wintering there.

December 26, 1890:  Washington recorded 10.0 inches of snow.

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 -7F on the 9th and -8F 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 -7F. 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 -6F 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 Mexico.

20th Century Winters
First Half: 1900-1950

January 16-18, 1900: Washington recorded 11.3 inches of snow.

The Year of 1904: This year recorded the most days with minimum temperatures of 32F 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 and June.

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 -40F. Washington reached -8F. On the 14th, College Park reported -26F, Hagerstown -27F, Frederick -21F, Laurel -19F, Tacoma Park -8F, Baltimore -2F and Washington, DC -13F.

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 -2F, Cheltenham -7F, College Park -12F, Rockville -11F, and Washington, DC -3F. The high temperature at Baltimore remains a record low for the month with it reaching only 10F. 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 1F on January 1, Rockville dropped to -12F on the 4th, Annapolis -4F and Baltimore 0F on February 5, College Park was -10F, Rockville -10F, great Falls -12 and DC was -2F 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 ground.

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 25F 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 11F 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.
            On the 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 Storm".

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 snow.

January 23, 1935: Washington recorded 11.3 inches of snow.

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 32F. 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 Miami, Florida!

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 happening.

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 -4F for a low and Baltimore recorded a record low high temperature (for the month) of only 5F. 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 energy.

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:

November 1.0 inches February 6.3 inches
December 3.1 March 1.6
January 6.2 April Trace 

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

November:     4 days from November 25 through 28, 1938 
December:   20 days from December 8 through 27, 1989 
January:       21 days from January 5 through 25, 1893 
February:     26 days from February 1 through 26, 1905 
March:         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
map of maryland average snowfall

 



 References:

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.
 

Acknowledgments:
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.

National Weather Service EmblemNOAA Logo                Last updated November 17, 1999

December 30, 2005

 


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