D.C.’s double-digit snowstorms: A history and guide to the patterns that produced them

Deep D.C. snow on December 19, 2009. (Ian Livingston)

Deep D.C. snow on December 19, 2009. (Ian Livingston)

Washington, D.C. is well known among snow aficionados for its tendency to have winters made up of snow boom or snow bust. Arguably throughout history, it’s been quite the boom town.

Forecasting snowstorms is tough around here. There’s a wide range in terrain with mountains to the west and ocean to the east. Many storms form within a day or two of pounding the region.

Pattern recognition is often valuable as a main step. It happens to be one of my favorite personal aspects of weather watching. While this is another of those “mainly for nerds” posts, I’ve tried to include enough general information to make it interesting to a wider audience. When complete, it should be generally digestible by all.

Jump to storms: #1: Knickerbocker (1922) | #2: Great Blizzard (1899) | #3: Presidents’ Day 1 (1979) | #4: Blizzard of 2016 | #4: Snowmageddon (2010) | #6: Blizzard of 1996 | #7: Presidents’ Day 2 (2003) | #8: Blizzard of 1983 | #9: Snowpocalypse (2009) | #10: Feb. 1958 Snowstorm | #10: Snowstorm of 1936 | #12: Blizzard of 1900 | #13: Blizzard of 1966 | #14: 1st Feb. 1899 Snowstorm | #15: Feb. 1886 Snowstorm | #16: Blizzard of 1891 | #16: Dec. 1932 Snowstorm | | #18+: 10 to 11.5 Inch Snowstorms

Note: Under construction.

#1: The Knickerbocker Snowstorm

28.0″ of snow in D.C. | January 27-29, 1922

D.C.’s top snowstorm is also its most infamous disaster. Its name stems from the Knickerbocker Theater collapse that left 96 people dead in the city’s deadliest disaster. The collapse was in heavy part due to copious amounts of a dense and wet snow. A rare D.C. bulls eye, the storm has held the top spot for nearly 100 years. Knickerbocker focused its fury from roughly central Virginia to northeast Maryland and across the bay. Totals of 28 inches were reported in Fredericksburg, Va. and Annapolis, Md., as well as D.C.

Related (offsite): D.C. snowstorm reanalysis loops | Everything you need to know about snow in Washington, D.C. | The key characteristics of Washington’s biggest snowstorms

Jan-1922

The week of the storm was very cold with highs mostly below freezing. It warmed to near normal after the event, which may have been considered even warmer back in that time period given that D.C.’s temperature normals have warmed over time. The two week’s prior to the storm period were a mix of cold to warm and then back to cold.

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#2: Great Blizzard of 1899

20.5″ of snow in D.C. | February 11-13, 1899

Tons of snow is one thing, brutal cold is another. The Great Blizzard of 1899 is one of the top megalopolis blizzards of all time. Before it started, and as the event was beginning, temperatures below zero were recorded in every state across the East Coast from Florida to Maine. Bay effect snow was reported near Tampa, Florida. New Orleans saw accumulating snow. Ice reportedly flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River. Still considered a benchmark storm across the northeast, over one foot of snow fell from North Carolina through Maine. The D.C./Baltimore region saw widespread 15 to 25 inch totals, with some near 30.

Feb-1899-Great-Blizzard

The week of the great blizzard was extremely cold. Temperatures averaged around 30 degrees below the current normal. D.C.’s lowest temperature on record of -15 occurred the day the storm began. A high of 4 was observed on February 10. Three days in the stretch had sub-zero lows, and the others featured lows in the single digits. The weeks prior were also very cold and featured some snow. February 1899 was part of D.C.’s second snowiest winter on record, when 54.4 inches of snow accumulated.

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#3: Presidents’ Day 1

18.7″ of snow in D.C. | February 18-19, 1979

Presidents’ Day 1 (PDI) was a Mid-South to Mid-Atlantic and Carolinas special. The broader D.C. region took the brunt of the storm with upwards of 20-25 inches reported around the bay to the east of the city. Totals rapidly dropped off north of New York City as big D.C. storms can tend to do. Originally known as Washington’s Birthday storm, it has been known as PDI since another major Presidents’ Day event hit in 2003. This one was a bit of a surprise too, all the better for snow lovers!

Feb-1979-Presidents-Day

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Feb 17 thru 21z Feb 22

The week of the snowstorm was quite cold, averaging about 20 degrees below the current normal for that time frame. It was preceded by two weeks featuring deep cold and somewhat regular snow. As the snowstorm departed, a high pressure ridge built into the region and it was mild to warm for the rest of the month. Snow melted quickly.

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#4: Blizzard of 2016

17.8″ of snow in D.C. | January 22-23, 2016

The first massive January snowstorm in D.C. since the Blizzard of 1996, this one shared similarities to that event even though they occurred in different ENSO phases (La Nina for 1996, El Nino for 2016). In the D.C. area widespread totals over two feet were recorded, with western and northwestern suburbs approaching 3 feet in spots. Baltimore set its snowstorm record, as did New York City (LaGuardia/JFK), and other places. The federal government was closed for two full days and had three short-day schedules, even though the storm started on a Friday. Strong El Nino’s are known to be feast or famine for snow, but after the first Category 4 NESIS since 2005 and the first in the D.C. area since Presidents’ Day II, it’s likely snow lovers won’t be so anxious the next time!

Jan-2016-Blizzard-Snowzilla

500mb initialization analysis: Storm loop covering 12z Jan 20 to 18z Jan 24

After the warmest December on record, January 2016 ended up a little below normal for the D.C. area. The week of the storm was dominated by cold air, but temperatures rose fairly rapidly in the days following. The weeks prior were mixed warm and cold, with the coldest day of the season coming in the week prior to the event. A little snow fell in the lead up after the latest trace on record came earlier in January. Long-awaited coastal storms started passing by, one giving D.C. fairly substantial rain.

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#4: Snowmageddon

17.8″ of snow in D.C. | February 5-6, 2010

The aptly named Snowmageddon occurred within D.C.’s snowiest winter on record when 56.1 inches accumulated. The winter featured a major snow blitz from January 30 through February 10 in which 38.1 inches of snow fell from four different storms. Snowmageddon was one of the rare times where snow falls on old snow in the city, then it was followed by even more. A “wet” storm, totals past 30 inches from Snowmageddon alone were recorded in the region, including a 32.4 inch tally at Dulles in Loudoun County. About as big as it gets around here, just a matter of where saw the most.

Feb-2010-Snowmageddon_update

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Feb 3 thru 21z Feb 7

The week of Snowmageddon featured below average temperatures and it was littered with snow. It snowed early, it snowed late, it snowed in the middle. The weeks prior were transition periods. Two weeks of January were quite mild, and that period culminated in a 68 degree reading on the 25th. Then the bottom fell out and the snow arrived. January 30th got the snow ball rolling with a snowstorm featuring temperatures in the upper teens and low 20s.

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#6: Blizzard of 1996

17.1″ of snow in D.C. | January 6-8, 1996

The Blizzard of 1996 is regarded as one of the most significant winter storm events on record in the United States. A huge swath of deep snow fell from the Mid-South and Ohio Valley, across the Appalachians, and up the I-95 corridor through the northeast. It is one of only two NESIS snowstorms (including events since 1956) rated category 5, and the other is the 1993 Superstorm. Snowfall up to around two feet in depth was measured in much of the D.C. area. This event remains the biggest snowstorm on record in Philadelphia, even during the incredible run of big storms of late.

Jan-1996-Blizzard-of-1996_update

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Jan 5 thru 21z Jan 9

The week of the snowstorm was cold. The weeks leading up tended cold as well, although there was nothing too extreme. Following the Blizzard of 1996, a brief but intense warm up led to flooding across the region. The winter was full of snow, it is currently ranked third snowiest in D.C. with a total of 46 inches.

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#7: Presidents’ Day 2

16.7″ of snow in D.C. | February 15-18, 2003

If you’re into length of storminess records, Presidents’ Day 2 (PDII) was your beast. PDII was partly characterized by precipitation overrunning a cold air mass with little low-pressure support. It did that for a while, changed to sleet for a time, then the main body of the storm passed. Since it seemed to go on forever, the totals were impressive across the region and to the northeast. Even after the very snowy winters of 2009-10 and 2014-15, PDII remains the biggest snowstorm on record in Baltimore and Boston.

Feb-2003-Presidents-Day-1-Snowstorm_update

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Feb 13 thru 21z Feb 19

The lead-up to PDII was generally quite cold. There was a brief warm up in the two-week-out period, but it snowed shortly after that and remained chilled through the start of the storm. As the storm reached its peak, when 13.3 inches fell on the 16th in D.C., the month’s lowest temperature of 15 degrees was recorded. Temperatures stayed below normal and more snow fell during the month. The winter of 2002-2003 is tied for the seventh snowiest on record in D.C. with 40.4 inches of snow.

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#8: Blizzard of 1983

16.6″ of snow in D.C. | February 11-12, 1983

Rated among the top snowstorms on the NESIS list, the Megalopolitan Blizzard of 1983 was a Mid-Atlantic and urban northeast event. It dropped a swath of 10-20″+ snowfall from parts of northern North Carolina through southern New Hampshire. The heaviest of the heavy snow fell in and around the D.C. region, mainly across the far northwest suburbs and just to the north and west. Thundersnow helped enhance the intensity in the hardest hit spots. In parts of the area, this is considered the biggest snowstorm on record.

Feb-1983-Blizzard_update

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Feb 8 thru 21z Feb 13

The 1982-83 season was largely defined by warm air prior to February. Even February ended up near normal. One of the strongest El Ninos on record helped boost the warmth and probably also added some oomph to the storm and storm setup. The week prior to the event was mixed warm to cool, and there was a smaller snowstorm that dropped 4.4 inches at D.C. on the 6th. Prior to that, it was mainly warm. The week of the storm was below normal, but warmth returned after.

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#9: Snowpocalypse

16.4″ of snow in D.C. | December 18-19, 2009

Snowpocalypse was the second snowstorm of December 2009 for the D.C. area, although the first dropped very little in and around the city thanks to temperatures near or above freezing. As December rolled, a classic blocking pattern aligned to produce the biggest December snowstorm on record for Washington. It was a cold snow for the time of year, which helped it pile up all the more easily. Six or more hours of very heavy snow within the broader 24 hours of the system came during the day, and blizzard warnings were eventually hoisted. The storm hit the Mid-Atlantic the hardest, but it also continued northeast to impact the coastal northeast significantly.

December-2009-Snowpocalypse_update

North American Reanalysis detailed look: Storm loop covering 0z Dec 15 thru 21z Dec 22

December 2009 was a chilly month. However, December is often not frigid in the D.C. area. Even during the cold stretch around Snowpocalypse, only one day (the peak of the storm) had a high below freezing. The week prior to the storm was cool to briefly warm. Two weeks out, it was cold and the first snow event of the season impacted the area on December 5. In most seasons a Snowpocalypse would be the big one of the winter, if not a number of winters. In 2009-10, there were still two more massive storms to come.

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#10: February 1958 Snowstorm

14.4″ of snow in D.C. | February 15-16, 1958

This snowstorm was the biggest in the city in 22 years. Another in December of the same winter fell just a bit short at 11.1 inches. Both of these storms make the top 25 snowfall list in D.C., and another in March featured temperatures just a bit too warm for the cities but was historic to the northwest. This one dropped a wide swath of 10 inches or greater snowfall from southern Virginia through New York and New England. The Feb. 1958 event was crippling thanks in part to the cold weather that stuck around in the days after. That cold weather, mixed with winds, helped keep area roads largely impassable for two to three days following the storm.

Blizzard-1958-February_update

If you’re looking for a snowy strong El Nino, 1957-1958 is your model. It is the snowiest strong El Nino on record with 40.4 inches of snow in total. A number of very large storms impacted the region across the winter. After December, the winter was cold to very cold. The weeks leading up to the storm were both cold, with some snow in the two-week-out period.

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#10: Snowstorm of 1936

14.4″ of snow in D.C. | February 7, 1936

A quick hitter, the biggest snow of the winter came in fast and furious fashion across the region. While totals in and around the D.C. area were impressive, reports of more than two feet of snow were logged out on the Eastern Shore. The storm focused its fury on places that don’t often face the brunt to the south and east of town. Locations across the bay region and toward the shore were briefly cut off by snow drifts between four and six feet.

Feb-1936-Snowstorm_update

1935-1936 was a cold and snowy winter on the whole, and it came on the heels of a number of warm years featuring measly winters. The week of the event was extremely cold, and the two weeks leading up were also cold to very cold, even for the time of year. All three weeks of the period leading up to and including the storm saw accumulating snow.

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#12: Blizzard of 1900

14.4″ of snow in D.C. | February 16-18, 1900

Just a little over a year after the Great Blizzard of 1899, an intense snowstorm targeted the Mid-Atlantic. Washington, D.C. and Baltimore were the big winners of the selected East Coast cities sampled throughout this page, but locations in Montgomery County, Md. — just a short hop from either city — reported up to two feet of snow. Woodstock, Va. also reported 20 inches in a storm that lasted 36 hours. Gusty winds caused widespread drifting that impacted travel by road and rail.

Feb-1900-Blizzard_update

In what would be considered a very snowy winter these days, 1900-1901 saw many snow events as moderate El Ninos like to do. February was below normal when it comes to temperatures, and there was another snow event shortly after this one. As is typical of El Ninos, swings between temperatures were common in the lead-up to the event. Two weeks out it was very cold. The week prior to the snowstorm period was warm on both ends and near normal in the middle.

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#13: Blizzard of 1966

13.8″ of snow in D.C. | January 29-30, 1966

The Blizzard of 1966 impacted a very large portion of the eastern United States. Significant snowfall was recorded into the South, with spots in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama approaching or surpassing 10 inches from the event. It maximized its snowfall while passing the D.C. region and then up into New York where prolific totals were seen. Travel came to a standstill in the urban northeast corridor. This was the worst storm to hit D.C. in five years.

Blizzard-January-1966_update

Temperatures had been bouncing around a bit prior to the storm, but the period and month were generally cold. The week of the storm was very cold and very snowy. In addition to the event detailed here, a 7.5 inch snowstorm occurred two days prior. Another smaller event happened in the days after as well. Looking at the larger stretch, it is perhaps the most intensely wintry strong El Nino winter period in the area.

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#14: First Snowstorm(s?) of February 1899

13.7″ of snow in D.C. | February 5-8, 1899

February 1899 is the mostly undisputed king of winter months in D.C. We see big snowstorms clump together in big seasons quite often, but the stretch of snow and cold in Feb 1899 is unparalleled. As very cold air settled into the western United States, little waves of energy rode along a stationary front sitting in the broader region. Snow fell — with breaks — for four days, leading to hefty accumulation in the city. It was a tough time for weather forecasters, as the event generally seemed to sneak up on them per press reports.

First-February-1899-Snowstorm

As noted, February 1899 was a brutal winter month on average. The brutality was strongly weighted toward the first half of the month. The week of the snowstorm featured cold to extreme cold and was shortly followed by D.C.’s coldest temperature ever and a blizzard. Deeper into the lead-up, the full week prior to the week featuring the storm was cold with a little snow. Two weeks prior, it was mild with some rain.

Note: This storm is classified as one event in NWS records as well as in “Northeast Snowstorms,” the seminal book on the subject by Kocin and Uccellini. My own analysis of this event tends to indicate it more than one storm, and other published works mention multiple systems. However, it’s somewhat nebulous because the pattern was dominated by a western trough that was sending little lows east every so often. The Washington Post reports on the first event as a four hour ordeal dropping 5.5 inches on February 5. A later article refers to it all as one event, and that seems to be how it’s been categorized officially. As such, I’m leaving it in the 14th snowiest storm, but the evidence isn’t completely compelling that it was or should be classified as one event.

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#15: February 1886 Snowstorm

12.4″ of snow in D.C. | February 2-4, 1866

The Washington Post called this the biggest snowstorm since 1877, reporting that the snow “continued with unabated fury” for about 18 hours. It was a classic, originating around Texas and chugging northeast. Staunton, Va. reported eighteen inches as did Harrisonburg, Va., where the storm was said to be the worst since 1857. Around Fredericksburg, Va., snow was said to be around two feet deep and drifting. Heavy snow with this system was reported deep into Texas. Roads and rail were severely disrupted into New York and New England.

feb-1886-snowstorm-blizzard

As is generally the case, the week of the storm was cold and snowy. In the lead-up, weather conditions ranged from cold to mild to cold, with some snow in the week prior. Two weeks out it was generally colder than normal.

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#16: Blizzard of 1891

12.0″ of snow in D.C. | March 27-28, 1891

An unusually late heavy snowfall, and the largest on record for March in D.C., this event was described as a blizzard in press at the time. The storm was a mixed rain and snow event that finished largely as snow in the city. It was the most significant East Coast storm of the winter, with reports from the first day already as high as 18 inches in Winchester, Va. and twelve inches in Staunton, Va. In Staunton, it was noted as also “melting rapidly” during the event. Martinsburg, Wv. picked up 30 inches in the storm. The Appalachians were hit hardest, with railroad service heavily disrupted and drifts of 12 to 15 feet deep were reported north of Hagerstown, Md.

Blizzard-1891

A government meteorologist by the name of Professor Hazen was quoted as saying March 1891 was the worst March in the city he could remember. The month was much colder than normal with most days considerably colder than typical. It is March though, and the run-up to the storm featured temperatures in the 50s the week prior. The days of the storm were *just* cold enough for snow, with highs in the 30s and lows near freezing.

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#16: December 1932 Snowstorm

12.0″ of snow in D.C. | December 17-18, 1932

Before Snowpocalypse came around in 2009, the December 1932 snowstorm was the biggest snowstorm on record in December for Washington. Impact was far-reaching both locally and across the northeast. The heaviest snowfall for D.C. since Knickerbocker, moderate to heavy accumulation was reported northeast up toward New York City and across New Jersey. The storm focused its worst on the Mid-Atlantic, but snow was reported well into the south.

December-1932-Snowstorm-blizzard

Major cold for December accompanied the storm, with lows in the teens and highs in the low 20s during the event. The week prior to the storm was cold and had a small snow event in the mix. Two weeks out, it was mild to warm with a number of days in the 60s. Shortly after the storm, there was a rapid warm up with more 60 degree days late month, including a 68 on Christmas Day.

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#18+: 10 to 11.5 Inch D.C. Snowstorms

#18: November 11, 1987 | 11.5″ in D.C.
(snowstorm card)

Easily one of the most anomalous weather events to hit D.C., this storm transitioned from rain to a pounding wet snow. It’s the earliest big snowstorm on record by far.

#18: March 29, 1942 | 11.5″ in D.C.
(snowstorm card)

Described as a freak event, the Palm Sunday Blizzard dropped over 20 inches of snow in Baltimore in addition to the nearly one foot in D.C.

#18: January 30, 1930 | 11.5″ in D.C.
(snowstorm card)

A storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic hardest, the heaviest total of big cities actually was the District for once!

#18: December 22-23, 1908 | 11.5″ in D.C.
(snowstorm card)

11.5 inch events love the Mid-Atlantic. In this one, the heaviest snowfall was south of the city. Richmond picked up 17.2 inches, its 4th biggest snowstorm on record.

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Note: Under construction. This post will continue to be updated to include information on all 10 inch or greater D.C. snowstorms. I decided to run with it early given the 1996 20-year anniversary…. 😉 Posted January 7, last updated January 31.

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