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Feast and famine: The ins and outs of March snowfall in Washington

Snow at the Tidal Basin on March 17, 2014. (Ian Livingston/The Washington Post)
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March is an odd month in Washington. Sometimes it’s warm, but recently it’s seemed as if March is the new winter.

The Washington region averages about one to four inches of snow from southeast to northwest during the month. In the city, the current average is 1.3 inches. That’s about one small storm per year, or a few really small storms. In reality, the 1.3 inches comes mainly from a mix of no snow years and years with moderate or even heavy March snows.

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Although no March snow at all fell in 36 percent of years in the modern record dating to 1885, 12 years have featured 10 inches or more in the city; 19.3 inches fell in March 1914. Just a few years ago, in 2014, three storms brought 12.7 inches to the city. That was the fifth most on record for the month.

Like late-season snow in general in these parts, the biggest March snow events mostly occurred well into the past. All top-five snow events for the city occurred before the mid-1940s, before Washington’s official weather observing site moved to National Airport from M Street in the District.

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The higher elevation of the M Street location may have boosted its snow totals some relative to National Airport, especially in March because temperatures are marginal for snow to begin with at this time of year.

Even as a bridge to spring, it can still snow big in March. Snowfall from the month’s top five biggest events range from 12 inches March 27-28, 1891, to 9.8 inches in early March 1909.

Just outside the top five snowstorms for March, a storm on March 9, 1999, put down 8.4 inches. This one comes in at No. 6 biggest for the month and is ranked as one of the top surprise snowstorms in the region by CWG’s Kevin Ambrose. This storm dropped a narrow swath of heavy snow as deep as 12 inches across the Mid-Atlantic on a frigid March day when temperatures hovered in the 20s.

Other top-ten March snow events include 7.9 inches March 2-3 in 1960 (No. 8 biggest March snowstorm) and 7.2 inches just three years ago (in 2014) March 16-17, which ranked 10th biggest.

There have also been huge March events that glanced D.C. with higher-end snow, such as the 1993 Storm of the Century, which ranks No. 11 during the month. Another March storm that stands out occurred in 1958. It dropped 10 to 20 inches in much of the area but less in the city because of higher temperatures.

Local snow lovers have been somewhat spoiled by March lately. The big March 2014 event was one of three snow events that month, which produced over a foot in all. The final accumulation event that year came as the earliest cherry blossoms were coming into bloom. It snowed again a year later on the same day.

It truly does seem that March is the new winter. Maybe.

Once we get into the middle of March, getting accumulating snow starts to become more and more difficult. Even as of Friday (March 10), we’re already past the mark when Washington, on average, has witnessed its final measurable snowfall (using data from the past 30 winters).

Everything you need to know about snow in Washington, D.C.

The average for the final measurable in D.C. is now March 1, which highlights the all-or-nothing nature of the month.

As mentioned, we’ve lately been in a March snow hot streak. In the past four winters, we have seen accumulating snowfall later than March 1 every year. But a stretch like that isn’t common. The most recent one of similar length happened from 1993-1996. And if we manage accumulation this March, it’ll be the first five-year streak with accumulation after February since 1940-1944. April snow is all but extinct.

With all this in mind, it’s clear that whatever storm system is upcoming may be our last realistic shot for accumulation. After our springlike February, it’s still rather shocking.

Data obtained via NOAA and NWS Baltimore/Washington.