A woman throws a snowball at a friend who digs out a car in the 4400 block of MacArthur Boulevard NW, February 21, 1979. A surprise snowfall of 18.7” on February 18-19, 1979 gave Washington its third largest snowstorm on record. Initially, the forecasts called for either 1-3” or 4-8” of snow in Washington. Source: Washington Weather

Our modest surprise snowfall last week prompted me to research and write a post on Washington’s biggest surprise snowstorms, sometimes referred to as “overachieving” snow events.

As a kid, I absolutely loved a surprise snowstorm. For some reason, I seem to remember them in vivid detail. Even as an adult, with all the associated inconveniences of an unplanned snow interruption, I still enjoy a good surprise snowfall.

Fortunately, with improvements in computer weather modeling and the science of weather forecasting, surprise snowstorms have dramatically decreased in recent years. Major snowstorms are usually forecast well now and most surprise snowstorms are small, such as the event last week. Of course, big surprise snowstorms cannot be completely ruled out going forward since weather forecasting remains an inexact science.

If we look back at past decades, a few of the surprise snowstorms were quite large. I have researched the storms and rank the top 5 surprise snowstorms that have struck Washington, D.C. plus an honorable mention. Note: the top five snowstorms all occurred over a decade ago.

Read below for my top five list of surprise snowstorms.

Sailboats frozen in ice and snow in Annapolis, Maryland after the surprise Presidents’ Day Snowstorm of 1979. Up to 26” of snow fell in the Washington area despite a forecast for a light accumulation of snow. Source: Washington Weather

Forecasters believed the Presidents’ Day snowstorm of 1979 would move south of Washington and out to sea, only grazing the area with a light to moderate snow, possibly accumulating 1 to 3” or 4 to 8”. Instead, the storm intensified and moved north-northeast up the coast. As snow piled up across the Washington area, snowfall forecasts were updated frequently to catch up with the rapidly increasing accumulations.

By the morning of February 19, the Washington area received up to 26” of snow, with most of the snow falling overnight. National Airport received 18.7” of snow and Dulles Airport received 16.3” of snow.

Washington was paralyzed by the snowstorm. Coincidentally, U.S. farmers were in D.C. protesting for higher wages. They used their tractors to help city officials with snow removal. They also pulled cars out of snowbanks, cleared entrances to hospitals and fire departments and plowed parking lots. Farmers expanded their efforts to the suburbs and even delivered medication to snowbound individuals.

Related: “Huge Snowfall Shuts Down D.C. Area”

#2 - The Veterans Day Snowstorm of 1987

Veterans’ Day services in the snow at Arlington, Virginia, November 11, 1987. The afternoon forecast was for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the 40s but 11.5” of snow fell at National Airport, with some areas picking up more than a foot of snow. Source: Washington Weather

The Veterans Day Snowstorm of 1987 began during the early morning hours with a quick snow burst that produced 1 to 2” across Washington. The snow ended leading many to believe that the storm was over. For a brief time in the morning, no snow fell and people headed off to work, school, and shopping. The forecast was for clearing skies and temperatures in the 40s.

During the late morning, ominous streaks of heavy snow began to break out south of Washington. The heavy snow surged northward as a second low-pressure system quickly intensified. By noon, heavy snow had set up over much of the area. Snow fell at rates up to 3” per hour for several hours, accompanied by lightning and thunder. Temperatures hovered around 30°F and since the texture of the snow was not particularly wet, power outages were not a problem. When the snow stopped falling in the evening, the snow accumulation in the metro area ranged from 4 to16”.

The end of the snowfall did not signal the end to traffic tie-ups. A very large backup occurred on Interstate 95 south in Prince William County and another fifteen-mile backup stacked up on the Beltway. An estimated 60,000 travelers were stuck in traffic for much of the evening. Some commuters spent the night in their cars while others abandoned their vehicles and found shelter elsewhere.

Related: On this day in 1987: Unpredicted. Paralyzing. Snow.

#3 - The Nor’easter of January 25, 2000

The visible satellite image shows heavy snow cover from central North Carolina to eastern Pennsylvania, January 26, 2000. The storm was forecast to move out to sea, south of Washington, but instead the storm rapidly intensified and moved up the East Coast. Up to 19” of snow fell east of Washington. The forecast the previous day called for up to an inch of snow accumulation. Source: Washington Weather

As late as the afternoon of January 24, it appeared that the developing storm system in the southeast U.S. would track out to sea, south of Washington, sparing the area of significant snow accumulation. Dry air had surged into Virginia from the north and west, and the skies cleared in the afternoon, which produced a striking, red sunset. Later in the evening of January 24, however, it became apparent that the storm was going to take a track up the East Coast and not out to sea.

The precipitation that had stayed focused in the Carolinas during most of the day was now moving northward into Virginia. In addition, precipitation was advancing westward from the Atlantic Ocean into Eastern Virginia and Maryland. The storm was rapidly strengthening near the coast of North Carolina and all East Coast cities were quickly put on alert for winter storm conditions.

On January 24 at 9:07 p.m., the Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for the Washington area. Minutes later, the television networks interrupted programming with emergency weather bulletins. The late night news programs focused on the impending storm; however, many people had missed the warnings and gone to bed not knowing about the impending storm.

The snow began after midnight on January 25 and was moderate-to-heavy when most people awoke in the morning. Many were surprised at the scene that greeted them when they looked out the window.

As the storm moved up the coast, snow bands set up across the Washington area with a north-to-south orientation. The heaviest snow band was located in the eastern suburbs, with another band located well west of D.C. The storm continued with varying intensity throughout the day and did not end until the evening. The snow was accompanied by high winds that gusted past 40 mph, which caused considerable drifting.

Snow totals ranged from 8 to 12” from Washington to the west, with generally 12 to 18”of snow east of D.C. The deepest snow was measured near the county line of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties. Snow totals were 9.3” at Reagan National Airport, 10” at Dulles Airport, 14.9” at BWI, and 18” at Annapolis, Maryland.

The bad forecast was a big egg in the face for forecasters, as Steve Tracton noted in an earlier post on this storm:

The dismay and embarrassment on the part of the NWS and local TV meteorologists was especially haunting given the announcement one week before by NWS Headquarters that the introduction of a new supercomputer “puts us closer to reaching our goal of becoming America’s no-surprise weather service.” Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote at the time, “Models? Next time, read pig entrails.”

Related: A snowy surprise, 10 years ago today

#4 - The Snowstorm of March 9, 1999

The visible satellite image on March 10, 1999 shows a narrow stripe of snow cover across the Washington area. A dusting of snow was forecasted for Washington but up to a foot of snow fell in the western suburbs. Moisture from a weakening storm in the Ohio Valley was expected to dry up before reaching Washington but instead a narrow band of snow developed and stalled over the Washington area. Source: Washington Weather

In the early morning of March 9, 1999, a strong high-pressure system was helping to drive very cold, dry air southward into Virginia. Meanwhile, a rather weak storm was moving northeast through the lower Ohio Valley. Computer models forecast the moisture from the storm to stay south of Washington, primarily impacting Central Virginia.

On the morning of March 9, a narrow band of snow rapidly moved north through Central Virginia and moved into Northern Virginia. The snow band expanded and became almost stationary over the Washington area, lasting through the afternoon.

The heavy snow band was oriented northwest-to-southeast and was centered just a few miles to the south of Washington. The heaviest snow fell in central Fairfax County where 10 to 12” accumulated. On average, 8 to 10” of snow fell in the immediate Washington area. Reagan National Airport reported 8.4” of snow – the heaviest March snowfall since the storm of March 28-29, 1942.

Snowfall amounts tapered off significantly to the north and to the south of Washington. The north side of Baltimore received only 2” of snow, while Charlottesville and Richmond received light accumulations.

This was not a typical, wet March snow. The snow was quite dry. With high temperatures in the middle 20’s during the afternoon, the snow had little trouble sticking to roadways.

In a scathing commentary on the forecast headlined “Eat My Dusting”, Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote:

Let’s be honest here: A baboon in a leisure suit could do as good a job with the weather as these guys.

. . .

By the way, the next day, did any of them go on the set -- that is, if they could get to work through the snow -- and say they were sorry?


Not one of them had the decency to say: “I am lower than pond scum. I am so loathsome, I make my own mother gag. Please let me make it up to you. Allow me to shovel your walk and sculpt the slushy leftovers into your likeness with my bare hands.”

Instead they grinned and said, “Well, we got a bit more snow than we figured on.” And they explained it with low-pressure ridges and jet streams and those little squiggly things on the map.

I don’t care why it happened, isobar boy.

I care that it doesn’t happen again.

#5 - The Snowstorm of January 22-23, 1982

A strong low pressure system tracked north through the Plains into western Wisconsin as mild air surged northeast toward the Washington area, January 23, 1982. This storm track is almost always a set up for rain in Washington but strong high pressure near Quebec provided a flow of cold air down the east side of the Appalachian Mountains. This flow of cold air is called cold air damming. The cold air ultimately prevailed against the surge of mild air and heavy snow fell in Washington, even as rain fell in cities west of the mountains such as Chicago, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. The National Weather Service had issued a flood warning for Washington during the storm, expecting rain and not snow. Source: PSU Meteorology

Rarely does a blizzard in Minnesota produce heavy snow in Washington, D.C. An extreme cold air damming event helped to drop temperatures into the teens in Washington with snow while cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo were experiencing rain and above freezing temperatures.

A flood warning had been posted for Washington with heavy rain expected to melt a sizeable snow pack. TV programming was interrupted to broadcast the flood warning and how temperatures would rise above freezing overnight. Instead, temperatures stayed well below freezing, dipping below 20 degrees in many areas, and the Washington area received 3-6” of snow. The snow fell on top of a snow pack from three previous snow events. The total snow pack in the Washington area increased to 10-12”.

Worth mentioning - February 25, 2007

Sledding after the surprise snowstorm of February 25, 2007 in Oakton, VA. A freezing rain advisory was in effect for the immediate Washington area with less than an inch of snow and ice accumulation forecasted. Ultimately, 3-6” of snow fell across the area. Source: Kevin Ambrose

On February 24, the National Weather Service issued a freezing rain advisory for the Washington area suggesting the likelihood of up to 0.2” of ice accumulation. CapitalWeather.com (the predecessor to the Capital Weather Gang) issued a forecast of less than an inch of snow and ice accumulation for the immediate Washington area. The precipitation was expected to turn to rain after a period of ice.

As heavy snow fell on February 25, the freezing rain advisory was upgraded to a winter storm warning for Washington. CapitalWeather.com explained, “The higher-than-anticipated amounts of snow are due to a weaker-than-expected push of warm air from the south at upper levels, and a slower and weaker advance of warmer air from the east at the surface.”

The snow accumulation across the area was in the range of 3-6”. It was the second storm of the month that produced accumulating snow and ice instead of the forecasted freezing rain and rain.

Let us know if you remember any other surprise snowstorms that were not covered in this post, or if you have any surprise snowstorm stories.

Related: Forecasting turkeys: Bad predictions since 1970