On February 10-12, 1983, a blizzard swept up the Eastern Seaboard, burying an area from Virginia to the Northeast U.S. under a blanket of very heavy snow. At the height of the storm, thundersnow was observed in many areas, particularly in the Maryland suburbs near Washington, D.C.
This was a textbook setup for heavy snow, with a nearly stationary high-pressure area sitting north of New York in a position to provide cold air to the Washington area. At the same time, a moist low-pressure system had developed and was moving northeast from Alabama.
Read below for more information and photos about the Blizzard of 1983.
During the late evening of February 10, with the low pressure system over Georgia, light snow broke out in the Washington area. The snow slowly picked up in intensity during the overnight hours.
By the morning of February 11, the surface low was positioned just east of Wilmington, North Carolina. At that time, heavy snow was falling across the entire metro region. A tightening pressure gradient between the storm and the high-pressure area to the north caused northeast winds to increase, with gusts over 40 mph.
In the Washington area, the heaviest snowfall rates, commonly 3” per hour, occurred during the late morning to mid-to-late afternoon of February 11. The snow tapered off by evening.
Many observers, particularly in the Maryland suburbs, reported several episodes of lightning and thunder. The thundersnow along the Eastern Shore produced extremely strong winds and whiteout conditions.
Most of the southern and eastern suburbs recorded 15 to 20 inches of snow while 20 to 30 inches of snow fell in the northern and western suburbs. National Airport received 16.6 inches with a water content of 1.91 inches. Both BWI and Dulles Airport reported 22.8 inches.
In northwest Montgomery and Frederick Counties, the storm was the greatest ever recorded, exceeding their totals received during the famous Knickerbocker Snowstorm of January 28, 1922.
Germantown and Frederick, Maryland both received 30 inches of snow. In western Loudoun County, Virginia, up to 38 inches of snow fell. Likewise, Braddock Heights, just west of Frederick, Maryland, received 34.9 inches.
To the south and east of Washington, snow pellets mixed with the snow which reduced the accumulations, but made for a considerably dense snow pack.
Despite the snow mixing with snow pellets and sleet, snowfall totals to the south of Washington were still impressive. Lynchburg, Virginia recorded 14.6 inches of snow in 24 hours and Richmond, Virginia recorded 18.6 inches. Nearby, in Alexandria, Virginia, the total was recorded at 18 inches.
The Blizzard of 1983 paralyzed the Washington area, causing closures of National Airport, Dulles Airport, and BWI Airport. Both Greyhound and Trailways stopped bus service in and out of Washington. The 39-mile Metro subway system was also shut down.
The storm kicked up heavy seas with 25-foot waves that capsized the SS Marine Electric, a 605-foot coal vessel. The ship capsized about 30 miles east of Chincoteague, Virginia. The ship was carrying 12,000 tons of coal and a 36 member crew, of which only three men survived. The winds were reported to have been over 55-mph at the time of the ship capsized.
After the storm, warmer weather moved into the area and the high temperature reached 52 degrees in Washington on February 15. For the next seven days, the high temperature was in the 50s or low 60s every day. The snow melted quickly and ten days after the storm, the only reminder that Washington had experienced a historic blizzard was the monstrous snow piles remaining in area parking lots.
My recollection of the Blizzard of 1983:
I was in my first year at the University of Virginia in 1983. A friend from the Washington area visited me a couple days before the storm and mentioned that an on-air weatherman in Washington had stated that the storm could produce a 20 inch snow total in D.C. That got my attention.
Two days later, when the blizzard hit Charlottesville, it dropped about 18-20 inches of snow. I remember for a short time that sleet and ice pellets dominated the precipitation type during the morning of February 11, which was then followed by hours of snow pellets. The storm ended with a period of very heavy snow.
All classes at UVA were cancelled. It was said to be the first time in history that snow cancelled UVA’s classes but I never checked that fact. I remember that I missed my first physics test of the semester which added to the joy of the snowstorm.
Let me know if you have any recollections of the blizzard.