Many winter outlooks leaned toward the not snowy end this year. But alas, a snowstorm named Snowzilla would change that in record-breaking fashion. There were a few much smaller storms as well, that continued to inch the totals higher long after Snowzilla was over.
Now that we’re certain the last snowflake has fallen, it’s time to look back on how winter 2015-2016 ended.
How it stacked up in the immediate area
All the major reporting locations in the Washington area — and really the whole region apart from the mountains — finished above normal for snowfall. Washington, D.C. — as reported at National Airport — received 22.2 inches on the winter. Dulles finished with 34.3 inches and Baltimore (via BWI) tallied up 35.1 inches.
While a majority of the snowfall came from the one giant snowstorm, the above average snowfall for winter was the third such instance in as many winters. That’s kind of rare; the last time Washington, D.C., saw three snowier than average winters in a row was 1985-1986 through 1987-1988.
Over at Dulles, where Snowzilla totaled 29.3 inches and the second-largest storm on record since it opened in 1963, the last three winters produced 124 inches of snow. Believe it or not, that’s the most in any three year span there.
The oddity of “one big storm”
People around here like to say that one storm can make a winter. It’s inherently true because our average snowfall is relatively low and we do get large storms with relative frequency.
However, the reality of the matter is that one storm making a winter is quite unusual. In fact, this winter can now be thought of as the gold standard when it comes to the one storm theory.
The storm not only single-handedly put many places near or above average for snowfall, it accounted for a vast majority of the total snowfall for most of the lower elevation areas around here. Most of the viewing area picked up over 80 percent of their seasonal snowfall from Snowzilla alone.
In the historical record there are no other instances of one storm making a season in a similar way in D.C. Probably the closest to it was the March 1942 snowstorm (also an El Niño year!) that dropped 11.5 inches. That storm made up 85 percent of the total winter snowfall that year, which ended up below average anyways. There was an analog in the 1982-1983 strong El Niño winter as well, but the February storm that year dropped only 60 percent of D.C.’s winter total.
Winners and “losers”
Given the increase in elevation to the north and west, it takes a super wacky winter for those areas not to get the most snow. As you might suspect, they won out again this winter.
Totals in the immediate area were commonly in the 25 to 35 inch zone. Some individual numbers include Bethesda, Md., with 30 inches, and 30.6 inches in Rose Hill, Va. As you get up into some of the ridge lines closest to D.C., totals in the 35 to 45 inch range were quite common.
On Parr’s Ridge and surrounds, the highest spots locally, big winners included locations near Clarksburg, Md. where 47.6 inches was recorded. Lower elevation zones in that region saw ranges generally from about 35 inches like in Leesburg, Va. and 38.5 inches near Martinsburg, W. Va.
Just east of the city some lower totals were observed in spots. Everyone from Richmond, Va.. to Salisbury, Md., and northwest picked up at least 16 to 20 inches.
Certainly not a bad winter around here, even if it was highly condensed!
Primary sources for information included National Weather Service local climate reports, CoCoRaHs, COOPs across the region, and reports via American Weather Forum members.
The map was created using a point shapefile developed from the snow data collected. Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW) interpolation was then used within ArcGIS and individual contours covering a five inch range were created. The interpolation estimates are based on values nearby and weighted only by distance.
While we quality checked the data and smoothed some spots where outliers were present, we did not change totals we were given to fill in some ridge tops. It’s likely that higher totals present in other ridge tops were also present in some of those locations.
Katie Wheatley is a GIS Analyst for EA Engineering, Science and Technology, Inc., PBC in Hunt Valley, Md.