It’s only the second week of November, and we’re already talking about snow. A wintry mix is in the forecast for Thursday morning, and snow could coat the grass in the D.C. metro area and accumulate up to two inches in the higher-elevation suburbs.
It seems strange and unlike the Novembers I’ve come to expect here, so I asked Ian Livingston, our resident climatologist, about the history of snow in November. His answer was pretty much what I expected.
“There really isn’t much of one,” he said, “although the north and west suburbs get a little from time to time.”
Measurable November snow hasn’t fallen in Washington in more than two decades. The last time it snowed enough to measure was 1996, and even then it was just two-tenths of an inch — barely enough to register on a yardstick.
That’s not to say snowflakes are rare in November, they just don’t tend to accumulate enough to measure. The last time we saw snow in the air in November was 2014 during a storm similar to what we have in the forecast this week; the National Weather Service had a winter storm warning up in the far-northern and western suburbs, and a winter weather advisory in the immediate northern and western suburbs. Although Dulles ended up with 1.3 inches from that storm, there wasn’t enough snow to measure beyond a “trace” at Reagan National Airport.
In fact, Washington has measured November snow more than 50 times since records began in 1871. Washington’s average November snowfall is half an inch — the product of many Novembers with no accumulation punctuated by significant winter storms.
The top November snowfall records in the capital are more than three decades old at least, with the largest being a surprise storm in 1987, better known now as the Veterans Day Storm. The night before, forecasts called for up to an inch of wet snow. Some forecasters were predicting that it would be nothing but rain. “Just two days before, it had been nearly 70 degrees,” Jason Samenow wrote. “The air wasn’t cold enough for much snow, forecasters said, and the ground was too warm for much to stick.”
Those forecasts were very, very wrong. The next morning, snow was falling at a rate of three inches per hour with thunder and lightning. The storm was crippling. By the time it was over, nearly a foot of snow had accumulated in the capital.
The earliest snow measured in Washington was Oct. 10, 1979. A frigid rain fell the night before, postponing the first game of the World Series at Memorial Stadium, where the Orioles were scheduled to take on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The next morning, rain turned to wet, heavy snow. In Washington and Baltimore, 0.3 inches fell, but totals up to seven inches were reported in the northern and western suburbs. Dulles recorded 1.3 inches. “The tree damage was especially severe because the trees had not yet lost their leaves, allowing huge amounts of snow to accumulate on the branches,” the Capital Weather Gang’s Kevin Ambrose wrote in his book, “Washington Weather.” “Huge snowflakes were accompanied by lightning and thunder.”