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VIRGINIA WINTERS
SNOW, WIND, ICE AND COLD

By Barbara McNaught Watson

         Virginia's biggest winter storms are the great "Nor'easters".  At times, nor'easters have become so strong that they have been labeled the "White Hurricane".  In order for these storms to form, several things need to occur. High pressure builds over New England. Arctic air flows south from the high center into Virginia. The colder and drier the air is, the denser and heavier it becomes. This cold, dry air is unable to move west over the Appalachian Mountains. Instead, it remains trapped to the east side, funneling down the valleys and along the coastal plain toward North Carolina. To the east of the arctic air is the warm water of the Gulf Stream. The contrast of cold air sinking into the Carolinas and the warm air sitting over the Gulf Stream creates a breeding ground for storms. Combine this with the right meteorological conditions such as the position of the jet stream, and storm development may become "explosive" (sudden, rapid intensification; dramatic drop in the central pressure of the storm).
         For a good Nor'easter to develop, the jet stream enters the West Coast of the U.S. and splits with the north branch crossing the northern Rockies and Canada and the south branch dipping to the Gulf Coast states. The south branch turns northeast across Virginia and rejoins the north branch off Newfoundland. The north branch of the jet supports the southward
typical winter low pressure moving up the coast sinking cold air. The south branch carries a disturbance from the Gulf Coast northeast to the Carolina coast. When the disturbance interacts with the temperature boundary formed by the warm Gulf Stream waters and the arctic air mass inland, a low forms and it intensifies into a nor'easter. Wind blowing counter-clockwise around the storm center carries warm, moist air from the Gulf Stream up and over the cold inland air. The warm air rises and cools and snow begins. The storm's speed and exact track to the north become critical in properly forecasting and warning for heavy snow across Virginia. It is quite common for the rain-snow line to fall right over Petersburg, Richmond, or Fredericksburg.  Heavy snow often falls in a narrow 50 mile wide swath about 150 miles northwest of the low pressure center (see diagram to the left - Low pressure center or storm center is represented by a "L").  Closer to the low center, the warmer 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 of snow.
         Winds around the storm's center can become intense, building waves that rack the coastline and sometimes pile water inland causing extensive coastal flooding and severe beach erosion. The strong wind from the northeast gives the storm its name, "nor'easter". Unlike the hurricane which usually comes and goes within one tidal cycle, the nor'easter can linger through several tides, each one piling more water on shore and into the bays. March 5-9, 1962, is known as the "Ash Wednesday Storm." The storm lingered off the Virginia Capes for days.  It caused over $200 million (1962 dollars) in property damage and major coastal erosion from North Carolina to Long Island, NY.
         During the winter of 1993-1994, Virginia was struck by a series of ice storms. The region had been overdue for an ice storm, but it was unprecedented to have several occur one after the other. Ice storms are not an uncommon event in the valleys and foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Utility company records show the frequency with which fallen wires need to be repaired.  The set up is not completely unlike that for a nor'easter. High pressure over New England funnels cold, dry arctic air south over the state. The air tries to push west but can not rise over the Appalachian Mountains and becomes trapped on the east side. A storm moves northeast from the southern plains or Gulf Coast region. Instead of passing south and east of Virginia, it often 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 below).
how cold air damming works         The type of precipitation depends on the depth of the cold air. At first it is often deep enough for snow, but as the warm air associated with the nearing storm continues to erode the cold air east of the mountains, the cold air mass gets shallower and shallower. Soon it is no longer snow, but rain falling into the cold air. 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, it is generally considered no more than a minor nuisance. However, during the 1993-1994 winter storms, several inches of sleet were enough to cause considerable problems on roadways in Northern Virginia.
         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 degree will suddenly find ice accumulating on it. This is known as freezing rain and is very dangerous. Ice on roadways and walkways is treacherous. As the 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 can occur to buildings and communication towers can collapse from its weight.  During the February 10-11, 1994 Ice Storm, some areas of southern Virginia received an astounding 3 inches of ice causing tremendous tree damage and power outages for up to a week.  More recently on December 23, 1998, the Petersburg and Williamsburg area had a similar experience.
       Other types of weather systems generally do not cause major problems for Virginia. Storms such as the "Alberta Clipper" (a fast moving storm from the Alberta, Canada region), or a cold front sweeping through from the west, generally do not bring more than 1 to 4 inches of snow in a narrow 50 to 60 mile-wide band.  Sometimes, the high pressure and cold arctic air that follow in the wake of a "clipper" becomes the initial set up for the "nor'easter."  In very rare cases, elements combine to produce very localized heavy snow without any fronts or storm centers nearby. These events are nearly impossible to forecast with any accuracy. One such event occurred in Northern Virginia on March 9, 1999. An unexpected 9 to 12 inches of snow fell in a very narrow band through a very heavily populated and well traveled corridor (Winchester to Middleburg to Fairfax to Alexandria).

 



VIRGINIA'S HISTORIC WINTER EXTREMES:

         Information on storms and weather go back a long time in Virginia, thanks to early record keeping by weather observers such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and journals and articles written by early settlers. While early documentation of winter storms is not as extensive as that of hurricanes, listed below are some of the historic winter storms and cold waves to have impacted the great Commonwealth of Virginia.  Much of information for the 18th and 19th centuries (Prior to National Weather Service records which begin in 1871), if not otherwise noted, was compiled by David Ludlum, a weather historian and author, and documented in his books "Early American Winters" and the "American Weather Book".

18th Century Winters

January 28, 1772: This storm was named the "Washington and Jefferson Snow Storm" since it was recorded in both of their diaries. The storm left near 3 feet of snow from Charlottesville to Winchester to Washington.  It was the greatest snow anyone could remember at that time and remains the unofficial record to present day (official records begin in 1872).

May 4, 1774:  Snow was reported in the Williamsburg Gazette to have fallen in Dumfries, Virginia. George washington's weather diary logged at Mount Vernon, that it was a cold day with spits of snow and a hard wind from the northwest. Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville logged that the Blue Ridge Mountains were covered with snow. The late snow and frost killed most of the fruit crop in the northern part of the state.  It also snowed north across Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and 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 a day. Then on Christmas eve, the temperature dropped. Temperatures on Christmas Day remained at 30 or colder. On Christmas night, 22 inches of snow fell. He 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 and some of them were deep. The first rain came on the 9th of March. In Frederick County, two feet of snow was recorded.

"The Hard Winter of 1779-1780": This winter was so cold that ice was said to have been piled 20 feet high along the Virginia Coast and stayed there until spring! The upper portion of the Chesapeake Bay was frozen allowing people to walk from Annapolis to Kent Island, Maryland. The Virginia portion of the Bay was frozen to near the mouth. All waterways (rivers) in Virginia were reported firm enough to support crossing of soldiers and in some cases, loaded wagons. America was in its War of Independence. In March, a regiment of the Virginia Infantry marched from Falmouth to Fredericksburg. They were able to cross the Rappahannock River which had been frozen since the previous November.

January 1784:  The Chesapeake Bay once again froze almost all the way to the mouth. Snow occurred between the 10th and the 19th. James Madison in Orange County, VA wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson "We had a severer season and particularly a greater quantity of snow than is remembered to have distinguished any preceding winter." The cold and snow was followed by a thaw and flood waters on the rivers. An ice jam formed on the James River at Richmond. It gave way on the 24th causing a flash flood of ice and water that swept away an important bridge on a nearby creek and sank boats that were tied up below the falls. Ice on the Potomac did not break until March 15th.

January 1792:  The Elizabeth River at Norfolk froze for the first time since 1784.

February 14, 1798: Reports in the Norfolk Herald on February 17 and the New York Spectator on March 3 indicated that the greatest snowfall ever experienced had occurred in Norfolk with snow "in many places up to six feet deep" (may have been drifts). Some accounts claim that 40 inches of snow fell in just one night in Norfolk and along the coast but that 25 miles inland there was none. Over Northeast North Carolina, 16 inches of snow was reported. The wind was off the Chesapeake Bay (blowing from the north to northwest) and hence this may have enhanced the snowfall in the Norfolk coastal area much like the winds blowing across the Lake Erie produce large snowfalls under the right conditions in Buffalo, NY.

 


19th Century Winters

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 Appalachian Mountains, 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. In Petersburg, the storm began before daybreak on Friday the 14th and continued for 50 hours until mid-morning on Sunday and measured about 8 inches. Snowfall amounts increased to the north with 13 inches in Washington with much more over the Shenandoah Valley.

January 4-5, 1835:  Alexandria recorded -15F and the Potomac River was frozen over. The Chesapeake Bay also froze down to the Virginia Capes for the first time in almost 50 years.

March 16-18, 1841: A heavy snowstorm dropped up to 30 inches of snow in the Tidewater area. Measurements were taken in areas unaffected by wind. Reported in the local Beacon in Norfolk.

February 27 to March 2, 1846: A severe coastal storm known as "The Great Gust" hit the Virginia and the Northeast. Norfolk recorded tides up to five feet above normal. The storm did a half million dollars damage on the East Coast. Fifty families drowned in North Carolina. From "Historical and Destructive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity" by William S. Forrest, 1853 was the following -

"Friday, February 27, 1846. A snow storm of almost unprecedented severity commenced on this day, the wind
blowing a gale from the northeast."
"Saturday, 28th. The snow was several inches deep, and rain began to fall during the day, which continued until noon
on Monday, March 2nd, when the rain gave place to hail [sleet] which fell rapidly, the wind continued with unabated violence 'til midnight when it increased to a terrific hurricane, which tore off roofs of buildings, uprooted trees and demolished fences. The tide rose to an extraordinary height. Never since 1825 had it risen so high. Wide Water Street and the streets, lanes, and wharves below were completely inundated and very large quantities of merchandise...were destroyed."
From The American Beacon on March 4, 1846 -
"The wind continued from the NNE, accompanied by snow and hail until nearly 12 o'clock Monday night...Damage...confined to unroofing of residences...blowing down of (some buildings) damage...to shipping (was) immense."
From The Norfolk Landmark on August 19, 1879 -
"The great storm of 1846, known in all this section as "The Great Gust" commenced at 8 o'clock on the night of Sunday, March 1st of that year, and the rain and sleet were terrible. It continued all day Monday and terminated Monday night with heavy fall of snow. The tide rose 12 inches higher than it had for 45 years, inundating the wharves and coming beyond the north side of Water Street half way up to the market house.... The storm was equally severe at Portsmouth, Old Point and Hampton, and great loss of property resulted."
January 18-19, 1857: There was "The Great Blizzard and Freeze". More than a foot of snow fell with temperatures in the single digits and teens across the state. Strong winds caused structural damage on land and wrecked ships at sea. Great drifts blocked transportation through the state. One account states that Norfolk was buried under 20 foot drifts of snow! Snowfall in Washington was between 14 and 24 inches with drifts four feet deep. Portsmouth measured 16 inches. Brunswick County reported 18 inches and Prince George County 15 inches. Christianburg measured 14 inches and Winchester 8 inches. Winds drifted the snow in Richmond as high as 8 feet. Richmond was cut off from Washington for seven days. Temperatures below zero followed the storm. Christianburg reported -8F. A Petersburg newspaper included a journal of observations from 5:30 to 9:30 am on Friday, January 23, when the temperature in the city dropped from -15F to -22F and rose back to -13F. In Halifax, about 16 inches of snow fell with drifts to 5 feet. Temperatures fell to between -10 to -17 in the county. The cold was so extreme that all Virginia rivers were frozen over. The Chesapeake Bay was solid ice a mile and a half out from its coast. At Cape Henry, one could walk out 100 yards from the lighthouse on the frozen ocean.

January 21, 1863: A severe coastal storm dropped heavy rains on the Fredericksburg area. It rained for 30 hours dropping upwards of two inches. The mud was deep. So deep that mules and horses died in the attempt to move equipment. The rivers became too high and swift to cross.  It disrupted the Union Army offensive operation in the ill-famed "Mud March".

March 1-2, 1872: Known as "The Great Storm of 1872."  During the evening of March 1, winds increased from the northeast to gale force (over 40 mph) on the coast and snow began blowing and drifting. It was very cold and the snow accumulated several inches. The wind drove water up into the Tidewater area and up the rivers. Water rose rapidly flooding wharves and the lower part of Norfolk.

November 17, 1873: Severe storm and gale brought high tides to tidewater area flooding wharves and the lower portion of Norfolk.

December 3-6, 1886: A southern storm dumped heavy snow up into far southwest Virginia. The storm dumped 11 inches in Montgomery Alabama and 22.5 inches in Knoxville, TN. It dropped 26 inches in Ashville, NC and 16 inches in Wytheville, VA causing some roofs to collapse.

April 6, 1889 Nor'easter: Hampton Roads recorded a sustained wind of 75 mph from the north and Cape Henry 105 mph though it was estimated to have reached 120 mph. Tides at Norfolk reached 8.37 ft above Mean Low Water which is over 4 feet above flood. From The Norfolk Landmark on April 7, 1889 -

"...the storm was equal of the famous one of August 18, 1879. Water Street from end to end was a river of raging water; both ends of Main Street were covered with water, West Main Street as high as Jackson. Jackson Street was flooded clean up to Main. The water was a foot at the station-house door, and all the low Washington, was far under water."
And on April 9, 1889, The Norfolk Landmark reported that damage was heavier than the August 1879 hurricane even though the wind was not as strong in Norfolk, because it lasted for a much longer duration. It was estimated that the water was 18 inches higher than that of August 1879. This storm was said to have lasted two days and two nights. Rain, snow and sleet fell with the storm and totaled 3.2 inches liquid. Drummonds bridge was swept away (later replaced by the Ghent bridge). Trees were uprooted and roofs were torn off.

December 26-28, 1892: Norfolk set three local records for snow (Official Weather Records began in 1871). The greatest single storm amount with 18.6 inches; the most in 24 hours with 17.7 inches; and the maximum depth of snow on the ground with 18.6 inches. Normal snowfall at Norfolk is only 7.8 inches per year.

February 1899: The "Great Arctic Outbreak of '99" and the "Great Eastern Blizzard of '99" occurred this month. Extreme cold settled into the state with Quantico recording a record low of -20F and Washington, DC recording -15F on the 11th. The blizzard struck on Valentine's Day dropping 16 inches of snow in Richmond and 20 inches in Washington. It gave Washington a snow depth 34 inches (almost 3 feet) and the city recorded its greatest monthly total with 35.2 inches and its greatest seasonal snowfall total with 54.4 inches. Warrenton recorded 54 inches (four and a half feet!) just during February, setting a state record for monthly snowfall. 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

March 29, 1921: In Northern Virginia and Washington, an early spring abruptly ended when a cold front passed through. On March 28, it was 82F at noon in Washington, DC. The temperature fell to 26F by the morning of the 29th - a fall of 56 in less then 24 hours. The warm temperatures early in the year caused an early bloom on the fruit trees in Virginia and Washington. The sudden downfall of temperatures in early April caused damage to the crop for the year.

January 28, 1922: Exactly 150 years after the Washington and Jefferson Storm came the deepest snow of this century to hit parts of Virginia. The storm struck from South Carolina to Massachusetts with a heavy snow band stretching across Richmond (19 inches) and Washington, DC (25 inches). It immobilized the region. The weight of the snow was too much for the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, DC and it collapsed, crushing 98 people to death and injuring 130. The storm is known historically as the "Knickerbocker Storm."

March 1-3, 1927: High winds around the nor'easter gusted to 62 mph at Cape Henry and 52 mph at Norfolk. Heavy snow fell across North Carolina into Virginia and travel was delayed for 2 to 3 days. In Virginia Beach, high tide and heavy surf on March 2 inflicted considerable damage. The beaches in some places were washed back 50 feet and denuded of the overlying sand so that the clay beneath was exposed. The large hotel in Virginia Beach and other buildings were severely damaged along with the boardwalk and other protective structures.

February 7, 1936: Over 14 inches of snow fell in the Northern Virginia with greater amounts in the Skyline drive area. The heavy snow help set the stage for the great spring flood of March 1936 when warm March temperatures and rain brought a sudden thaw to the snow pack. Following the snow and before the March warm up, Richmond's temperature fell to a record low for the month reaching -10F.

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. Three people died in Virginia in the storm.

January 23-24, 1940: Farmville and New Canton recorded 24 inches in 24 hours setting a new record in the state. The storm also set a number of records for Richmond. Official records in Richmond began in 1897. The storm dropped almost two feet of snow (21.6 inches) in 24 hours and helped set a record for the month of 28.5 inches. Lighter amounts fell to the north. Alexandria received close to 10 inches of snow. Richmond was shut down with drifts as deep as four feet. Businesses were closed for a couple of days and some schools for a week. There were 12 deaths attributed to the storm in Virginia with damages estimated at half a million dollars. With fresh snow on the ground, temperatures fell. On the six days following the storm, low temperatures dropped below zero with the coldest day setting a new all time record of -12F. This was also the coldest month of February on record for Richmond.

March 29-30, 1942: The "Palm Sunday Snowstorm" was a seasonal late comer. Washington, DC and portions of Northern Virginia received a foot of snow.

January 22-28, 1943: Three years after Richmond's big snowfall, Richmond was hit with its worst ice storm of record up to that time. The ice accumulated to a glaze an inch thick. The weight of the ice was too much for utility poles and wires bringing them down and cutting off electricity and telephone service. Thousands of trees were damaged or destroyed by the weight of the ice.

 


20th Century Winters (Second Half)
1950-1999

April 11, 1956: A severe nor'easter gave gale winds (40 mph +) and unusually high tides to the Tidewater Virginia area. At Norfolk, the strongest gust was 70 mph. The strong northeast winds blew for almost 30 hours and pushed up the tide which reached 4.6 feet above normal in Hampton Roads. Thousands of homes were flooded by the wind-driven high water and damages were large. Two ships were driven aground. Water front fires were fanned by the high winds and, the flooded streets made access to fire fighters very difficult and it added to the losses.

February 15-16 and March 20-21, 1958: Over 14 inches of snow fell in Northern Virginia in the Washington area in a mid-February storm. Transportation was paralyzed. Two deaths in Virginia were attributed to the storm. Another nor'easter struck on March 21, dropping another 10 to 15 inches in the central mountains and across northern Virginia.

February 12 through March 10, 1960: Four storms in four weeks. The first 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 second storm struck February 18-20 and dropped up to two feet in the western Virginia mountains. The third storm hit March 2-5 and dropped 4 to 20 inches in Virginia. Twelve deaths were attributed to the storm in Virginia. The fourth 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! Many buildings collapsed from the accumulative weight of the snow and structural damage totaled into the millions.

The Winter of 1960-1961: The stormy pattern of the last couple winters continued with three more significant storms. 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 in Virginia attributed to the storm. 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, 2 to 13 inches across Virginia with as much as 36 inches in New York. There four fatalities in Virginia.

March 5-9, 1962: The "Ash Wednesday Storm." The storm hit Virginia during "Spring Tide" (sun and moon phase to produce a higher than normal tide). The storm moved north off the coast past Virginia Beach and then reversed its course moving again to the south and bringing with it higher tides and higher waves which battered the coast for several days. The storm's center was 500 miles off the Virginia Capes when water reached nine feet at Norfolk and 7 feet on the coast. Huge waves toppled houses into the ocean and broke through Virginia Beach's concrete boardwalk and sea wall. Houses on the Bay side also saw extensive tidal flooding and wave damage. Ash Wednesday storm damage March 1962  The beaches and shore front had severe erosion. Locals felt the damage from this storm was worst in Virginia Beach than that of the 1933 Hurricane. The islands of Chincoteague and Assateague were completely underwater. When the water receded, hundreds of thousands of dead chickens were left and the Virginia Department of Health indicating it was an extreme health hazard asked all women, children and elderly to evacuate. A million dollars in damage was done to NASA's Wallops Island Launch facility and an estimated $4 million in wind and flood damages occurred to the City of Hampton. Winds up to 70 mph built 40-foot waves at sea.
         Heavy snows fell inland. Big Meadows, in Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Mountains just southeast of Luray, recorded Virginia's greatest 24-hour snowfall with 33 inches and the greatest single storm snowfall with 42 inches. Two feet of snow fell from Charlottesville (21 inches) to Luray (24 inches) to Winchester (22 inches) setting new records. Hot Springs (in the mountains northwest of Roanoke) recorded 17 inches of snow, Culpeper 15 inches, and Richmond 12 inches from the storm. Roads were blocked and electrical service was out for several days in some areas.

January 30-31, 1966: A blizzard struck Virginia and the Northeast U.S.  This was the second snowstorm to hit Virginia in a week.  The first storm dumped 15 inches in Richmond and 9 inches in Norfolk. With fresh snow on the ground, arctic air settled in and temperatures dropped into the teens. The second storm dumped one to two feet of snow over a large part of the state: Lynchburg - 11 inches; Farmville - 23 inches; Partlow - 20 inches; Fredericksburg - 15.5 inches; Manassas - 13 inches; and Arlington - 14 inches (added to a previous snow, the depth on the ground came to 20 inches). Lynchburg set a monthly record with almost 32 inches (31.8).  Intense blowing and drifting snow continued and kept roads closed for several more days after the storm. Temperatures dropped into the single digits with some falling below zero. Wind chill temperatures were dangerously low. The Richmond area went on to set a record for the calendar year with 41.6 inches. Roanoke had a record month with 41.2 inches.

January 1977: The Bicentennial Winter was the coldest seen on the East Coast since before the founding of the republic. In Northern Virginia, 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 and give 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 for the month of January in Washington was 25.4F which was the coldest since 1856 when the temperature averaged 21.4F. The normal January average temperature for Washington is 34.6F (about 9 warmer). Roanoke averaged only 23.6F, Richmond 25.3F, and Norfolk 29.2F (all 12 below normal). 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 heavy snow like the Great Lake region did that winter. The cold winds blowing across the warm lakes brought 68 inches of snow to Buffalo, NY. Washington recorded 10 inches of snow in January, Richmond 11 inches, and Roanoke only 9 inches. Little to none fell the rest of the winter ending it well below normal. The cold wave penetrated into the South and on January 19, snowflakes were seen in Miami, Florida!

January 19-20, 1978: A strong nor'easter developed off the Southeast Coast. It was the third snow in a week for Virginia. Charlottesville got a foot of snow with up to 30 inches in the west central mountains of Virginia. East of the mountains saw 4 to 8 inches until you reached Richmond. Richmond got a devastating ice storm causing major power disruptions and tree damage. Many small buildings and roofs collapsed from the weight of the snow in the west. One man was injured when a roof fell. One person died while shoveling snow.

January 20-21, 1979: Up to an inch of solid ice was reported over sections of Southwest Virginia. Numerous trees and power lines came down causing extended power outages. Some localities were still without power a week after the storm. Pittsylvania County reported $1 million in damage to trees. Utility damages were also ran in the millions. Damage also occurred to homes and vehicles from trees falling on them.

February 18-19, 1979: "The Presidents Day Storm" was considered the worst storm in 57 years to strike Northern Virginia. Snow depths from the storm ranged from 6 to 8 inches southwest and southeast, 8 to 14 inches in the piedmont from south-central Virginia through central Virginia (Richmond reported 11 inches), and up to 20 inches over Northern Virginia. 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 Washington, DC to protest for higher agricultural pricing. When the storm hit, the farmers used their equipment to help locals dig out of nearly two feet. Four deaths were attributed to heart attacks from stress due to overexertion during and after the storm, and 18 injuries occurred from falls on ice. Temperatures across the state were very cold (single digits in the north) when the snow began making the storm similar to the February 1899 storm. Even Norfolk got 7 inches before changing to rain and recorded nearly 13 inches of snow for the month.

Winter of 1980: On January 4 and 5, a heavy wet snow fell over eastern Virginia with as much as 18 inches reported at Williamsburg. A second storm hit on February 6 that dumped 6 inches in Williamsburg and as much as 20 inches at Virginia Beach. Over a foot of snow fell in Norfolk. This was topped on March 1. Once again, arctic air had settled over Virginia and temperatures were in the teens. More than a foot (13.7 inches) of snow fell at Norfolk. The heavy snow combined with strong winds to create blizzard conditions. Norfolk's total for the season came to a record 41.9 inches making this the snowiest winter ever for Eastern Virginia.

February 10-11, 1983: The "Blizzard of '83" beat the Presidents Day Storm. It covered an unusually large area of Virginia with more than a foot of snow. The storm set a new 24 hour snowfall record in Lynchburg with 14.6 inches, Roanoke with 18.6 inches and Richmond with 16.8 inches. Richmond received 18 inches total and parts of Northern Virginia measured as much as 30 inches on the ground. Winds gusted over 25 mph all day on February 11 in the Richmond area causing Three foot high drifts. This was the third heaviest snowfall on record for Richmond for the last 100 years. The cost of clearing the snow from state roads came to $9 million.

March 28-29, 1984: A rapidly deepening storm moved out of the central Mississippi Valley on the 28th. It produced heavy rains over Southern Virginia on top of already wet soils and numerous streams and rivers flowed out of their banks. The intense low tracked across the lower Chesapeake Bay early on the 29th. Winds gusted to over 50 mph. Strong easterlies combined with the low pressure to cause considerable tidal flooding in the Tidewater area and especially in Accomack County. The tidal flooding was the worst experienced since the great March 1962 storm. Several hundred homes and businesses in the towns of Saxis, Onancock and surrounding communities were inundated with water as much as 5 feet deep, causing the evacuation of many residents. 75% of Tangier Island was flooded with up to a foot of water, while a large section of the air field was unusable. Many crab houses were destroyed by the flooding, high winds, and heavy surf. Over 1500 acres of farmland planted with small grains was damaged by salt water. Rain changed to snow northwest of Richmond and west of Washington, DC. 15 inches fell in Berryville (probably convective type of snowstorm or "thundersnow"). The storm produced severe thunderstorms in the south part of the state that toppled trees and damaged buildings. In North Carolina, the storm produced the state's worst tornado outbreak of record.

January 20-22, 1985:  An arctic cold front swept across the state ushering in extreme cold and high winds. Wind chill temperatures plunged well below zero. Winds knocked out power compounding the effects of the cold. Pipes froze and burst. Fresh snow of 4 inches with the front helped temperatures across the entire state fall below zero. New records were set at several locations in the south including Roanoke with -11F and Norfolk with -3F. Cable television lines were damaged by shrinkage caused by the extreme cold.  On January 22, Mountain Lake recorded the coldest temperature ever in the state with -30F.

February 1989: This was a month of big swings in the weather for Southeast Virginia. Twice, Norfolk saw record high temperatures in the mid 70s followed by a significant snowfall. The two storms that struck dumped a record 24.4 inches of snow at Norfolk. Over 14 inches occurred during one 24 hour period. It was the most snow to occur in one month in southeast Virginia in the last 100 years.

March 13-14, 1993: The "Superstorm of March '93" was also known as "The Storm of the Century" for the eastern United States, due to its large area of impact, all the way from Florida and Alabama through New England. The storm was blamed for some 200 deaths and cost a couple billion dollar to repair damages and remove snow. In Florida, it produced a storm surge of 9 to 12 feet that killed 11 people (more deaths than storm surges Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew combined) and it spawned 11 tornadoes. In a large swath from Alabama to New England, it dropped over a foot of snow. As the storm's center crossed Virginia, weather stations recorded their lowest pressure ever.
        This storm was not the storm of the century for Virginia. Virginia had seen greater snowfall and more damage by past storms such as the "Ash Wednesday" storm in March, 1962. It was the biggest storm in a decade and it packed quite a wallop to the western portions of the Commonwealth. Unlike most big winter storms that move up the coast, this storm took a more inland track across Richmond and the Chesapeake Bay. It brought rain and some high winds to Southeast Virginia and heavy snow and blizzard conditions over portions of the north and west. A foot to a foot and a half of snow fell along the foothills to the Blue Ridge with two feet to the west. Extreme Southwest Virginia saw 30 to 42 inches of snow from the storm (the most snow in over 25 years). Some roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow. Winds produced blizzard conditions over portions of the west with snow drifts up to 12 feet! Interstates were shut down. Shelters were opened for nearly 4000 stranded travelers and those that left without heat and electricity. Virginia called out its National Guard to help with emergency transports and critical snow removal. Eleven people died in Virginia during and immediately following the storm from over-exertion and heart attacks shoveling snow or from exposure and hypothermia. Snow removal and clean-up costs were estimated at 16 million dollars.

January-February, 1994: These two months saw an unusual assault of ice storms on the Commonwealth. It began in mid January with an arctic blast that sent temperatures below zero over northern and western Virginia for a couple mornings. Winchester recorded -18F on the 16th, Harrisonburg reached -13F, Woodstock was -17F and western Loudoun County reached -15F. Between then and mid February, about a dozen storms hit dropping snow, sleet, and freezing rain over all but the southeast. The most devastating storm struck February 10-11. A swath of Virginia was coated with one to three inches of solid ice from freezing rain and sleet! The hardest hit was an area from Danville and Lynchburg northeast through Fredericksburg. Some counties lost 10 to 20 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 county's people without power. Even with the help of electric companies from other states, many people were without power for a week. A presidential disaster declaration was given and damages were estimated at $61 million. There were numerous injuries from automobile accidents and people falling on ice. Unfortunately, the National Weather Service does not keep records on ice amounts because this was likely the iciest winter Virginia has seen, at least this century.

January 6-13, 1996: The "Blizzard of '96" or the "Great Furlough Storm" began late on Saturday, January 6. Just one day 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. blizzard of 96 snowfall totals However, mother nature did not cooperate. By Monday morning, much of Virginia and the Washington area was buried under 2 feet of snow. As much as 30 to 36 inches of snow fell over the western mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. Roanoke set a new 24 hour snow record with 22.2 inches and Lynchburg set a new record with 20 inches. High winds on the 8th swept the snow into 10 foot drifts in the mountains. Around Richmond and throughout central Virginia 1 to 2 feet of snow fell with 11 to 14 inches in the immediate metro area. Even the Tidewater area saw anywhere from 5 to 8 inches of snow.
         The entire I-95 corridor from near the North Carolina border into New England was paralyzed. Many rural and some residential areas did not see a snow plow for 5 days. The Federal Government remained shut down for another 4 days. Many local governments and businesses were also closed. Schools announced their closure for the entire week and some were closed longer. A second storm struck on Friday, January 12 dumping another 2 to 6 inches. A maximum of 10 inches of snow fell over Highland and western Loudoun Counties. By the week's end, most of Virginia, west of Richmond, had seen 2 to 4 feet of snow! Most areas to the east had received at least a foot.

January 19-22, 1996: Just one week after 2 to 4 feet of snow fell over western Virginia, temperatures warmed into the 60s ahead of a front which brought thunderstorms and heavy rain. The sudden warm-up caused a rapid snow melt. The melted snow was the equivalent of 2 to 4 inches of rain. Some areas saw another 2 to 5 inches of rain fall on top of the melted snow. The saturated ground meant that all the rain and snow became run off into the streams and rivers which could not handle it. Major flooding resulted. This sort of event had not happened since March 1936.

February 2-3 and February 16, 1996, Storms: A continuing series of Alberta clippers followed by strong nor'easters struck the Commonwealth. The storm on February 2-3, dropped one to two feet of snow from to Charlottesville, Fredericksburg and across the Northern Neck. To the north of the heavy snow band fell 6 to 10 inches of snow and to the south of the band was a significant ice storm. Some counties along the North Carolina border saw about half of its population lose power. The ice caused about a half million dollars in damage and caused widespread disruptions in the Hampton Roads area. Following the fresh snow and ice came a cold wave from the 3rd through the 6th with many areas dropping below zero. On the 5th, several places set new records. Lynchburg set a new all-time record low temperature reaching -10 F and Burkes Garden recorded -22 F which is one of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Virginia. On the 16th, another nor'easter moved up the coast dumping 6 to 12 inches of snow in a swath across Virginia from Nottoway to Fredericksburg with Charlottesville on the west side of the heavy band and Richmond on the east side.

Winter of 1995-1996: Much of Virginia, north and west of Richmond, had either a record seasonal snow total or it was in the top three for this century. Lynchburg set a new record with 57 inches of snow and Dulles with 62 inches. Blacksburg had 76 inches. Bluemont recorded 87 inches. Fredericksburg and the Northern Neck saw nearly 60 inches of snow. Roanoke recorded its third snowiest season with 53.4 inches. Burkes Garden recorded 97 inches of snow (over 5 feet). Bland and Glasgow had 62 inches and Buckingham saw 67 inches for the season. Some schools lost as many as 15 days. It was difficult to make up the time and compensate for the disrupted school year. Some schools added hours to their days, others added Saturdays or teacher conference days and some schools stayed in session through most of June.

January 27-28 and February 3-6, 1998:  "Back-to-Back Nor'easters" pounded the Tidewater area and produced coastal flooding. Tides remained higher than normal from astronomical high tides and the January 27-28 nor'easter. truck driving through flooded street Then came the February nor'easter.  Its slow movement and gale force winds pushed the tide to 7.0 feet above Mean Low Low Water at Norfolk and resulted in moderate to severe flooding. The entire town of Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore was under water. Willoughby Spit was the hardest hit area in Norfolk and homes in Sandbridge and Chick's Beach were severely damaged in Virginia Beach.  Inland, heavy rains fell. Most areas that saw 2 to 4 inches with the January 27-28 storm again saw it with the February storm. Some locations received as much as 7.5 inches of rain. The rain lead to flooding on small streams and creeks closing numerous roads. The flood waters eventually flowed into the main stem of the rivers which reached bank full or minor flood levels. A woman died in Culpeper after driving her car into flood waters.
          In the western part of the state, some high elevation counties saw one to two feet of snow in the January 27-28 storm. Thundersnow fell in Dickerson and Buchanan Counties were some people described the huge size of the snowflakes as being more like snowballs falling. Some trees and power lines came down. Power was out to 99% of Dickerson County residents. When the next storm on February 3rd began snowing, over 1000 customers were still without power. A charter bus on Interstate-81 overturned injuring 20 people. One man in Tazewell County died as a result of rescue services not being able to reach him fast enough with the heavy snow and downed trees and power lines. With the February storm came more snow and then ice. In the Allegheny Highlands, a foot or more of snow fell and winds drifted it in some areas up to 6 feet closing roads. Areas east of the highlands saw 4 to 8 inches before the snow changed to freezing rain. A man died of a heart attack shoveling g snow in Harrisonburg. Some areas got significant ice on top of the snow causing trees to come down and in ne case a roof to collapse. Heavy ice accumulated in the mountains with as much as 5 inches in some spots. (click here to go to web site with pictures) This did incredible damage to trees. Shenandoah National Park was closed for a week while trees where removed from Skyline Drive. Thousands of trees fell and work continued into April. Damage in the park alone was $607,000. Near the North Carolina border on the Blue Ridge Parkway west of Martinsville and again near Lynchburg, severe thunderstorms blew down trees, power lines, destroyed two mobile homes and blew a roof off a business.
 

December 23, 1998, "The Christmas Ice Storm":  A major ice storm struck central and southeast Virginia beginning on Wednesday, December 23 and lasting into Friday, December 25, Christmas Day. Icy conditions caused injuries from slips and falls and numerous vehicle accidents. Ice accumulations of up to an inch brought down trees and power lines. Outages were so widespread (400,000 customers on Christmas Eve) that some people were without power for up to ten days.

March 9, 1999:   Light snow began around day break and intensified into the mid day. In the heaviest band, snow was falling at a rate of 2 to 3 inches an hour. While schools were closed and some stayed home with the children, many others found themselves on the roads in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Snow was falling hard enough that road crews at times had trouble keeping up. Cars stuck in snow and abandoned soon littered the roadways making plowing even more difficult and travel for others even more hazardous.
March 1999 snowfall map

 


Virginia Winter Weather Summary

Roanoke Winter Statistics
Average Snowfall = 22.9 inches
Greatest Snow = 22.2 inches in Jan. 1996
Snowiest Month = 41.2 inches in Jan. 1966
Coldest Temperature = -11F in Jan. 1985

Richmond Winter Statistics
Average Snowfall = 14.0 inches
Greatest Snow = 21.6 inches in Jan. 1940
Snowiest Month = 28.5 inches in Jan. 1940
Coldest Temperature = -12F in Jan. 1940

Norfolk Winter Statistics
Average Snowfall = 7.5 inches
Greatest Snow = 14.2 inches in Feb. 1989
Snowiest Month = 24.4 inches in Feb. 1989
Coldest Temperature = -3F in Jan. 1985

Arlington/Alexandria/Washington Winter Statistics
Average Snowfall = 16.6 inches
Greatest Snow = 28 inches in Jan. 1922
Snowiest Month = 35.2 inches in Feb. 1899
Coldest Temperature = -15F in Feb. 1899

 



Credit:
        Ice storm picture of ice around a cable from February 1998 provided by NWS Blacksburg.
        Picture of tow truck in flood waters from February 1998 from NWS Wakefield. Picture taken by Hugh Cobb in the
                Ghent section of Norfolk shortly after LOW tide.

References:

National Disaster Survey Report: Superstorm of March 1993 , Dept. of Commerce,
NOAA, NWS, May 1994.
David Ludlum. The American Weather Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,
1982, pp. 9-10. 29-31, 54.
David Ludlum. Early American Winters: 1604-1820. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1966. pp 39, 65, 73, 83,
144-146, 148, 156, and 167.
David Ludlum. Early American Winters II: 1821 to 1870 Boston:American Meteorological Society, 1968. pp 11, 58,  112, 129, 233
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, January 1978.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, January and February 1979.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, February 1983.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, March 1993.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, January and February 1994.
Storm Data, Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, January and February 1996.
News Journal, Wilmington, DE, Sept. 18, 1994.
East Coast Storm: March 5-9, 1962 - A Preliminary Report and Special Weather Bulletins Issued. US Dept. of Commerce, Weather Bureau, March 1962.
"Some Outstanding Snowstorms" L.S. 6211, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Weather Bureau,
Dec. 1962.
Virginia Climate Advisory, Volume 12, Number 4, Office of the State Climatologist,
Charlottesville, VA, Winter 1989.
Flood Plain Information: Coastal Flooding: Hampton, Virginia. U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, Norfolk, VA, October 1968.
Flood Plain Information: Coastal Flooding: Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers, Norfolk, VA, July 1969.
Hurricane Survey, Norfolk Virginia: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk, VA,
October, 1959.
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.
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 Richmond, VA. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1994.
Local records from the Richmond Weather Service Office, DOC, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Norfolk, VA. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1994.
Local records from the Norfolk Weather Service Office, DOC, NOAA, NWS.
Local Climatic Data for Baltimore, MD. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1993.
Local Climatic Data for Roanoke, VA. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1993.
Local Climatic Data for Lynchburg, VA. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, NWS, 1993.

noaa logo    Material last updated November 15, 1999.

September 24, 2008

 


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