It’s feast or famine for snow lovers in the Washington area. The District and its surrounding suburbs can get blanketed by tremendous snowfalls, equaling or exceeding snowstorm records for many Northern U.S. cities. But it’s also not uncommon for Washington to experience winters with very little snow, which are more comparable to winters in Southern cities.
Washington sits between the Appalachian Mountains to the west and the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean to the east. It’s located in a classic meteorological battle zone during winter, which pits cold, Arctic air plunging south out of Canada against warm, moist air that streams north and east from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s the perfect setup for big snowstorms, but all elements must come together with precise timing for a winter storm to produce heavy snow in the region and not cold rain or sleet, which occurs more often than snow.
From the 1922 Knickerbocker storm to 2010′s Snowmageddon, Washington has witnessed some mammoth snow events. The big ones, in which the region sees at least a foot of snow, happen about every 10 years on average.
Below, we review Washington’s 10 biggest snow events on record.
1) Jan. 27-29, 1922: The Knickerbocker Storm
Washington’s largest snowstorm on record began during the evening of Jan. 27, 1922. The snow did not stop until the morning of Jan. 29, piling up to a depth of 28 inches, a single-storm snowfall record that still stands.
The storm was remarkable for its persevering intensity, generating snowfall rates of greater than one inch per hour for more than 24 hours.
The weight of the record-breaking snow collapsed the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre. The theater’s heavy steel-and-plaster roof fell on scores of moviegoers during a Saturday evening silent film, killing 98 people and injuring 133. The disaster still ranks as the worst in Washington’s history.
2) Feb. 11-14, 1899: The Blizzard of 1899
On the morning of Feb. 11, 1899, Washington set its record low of minus-15 degrees. A few unofficial readings in the Washington area were as low as minus-25 degrees. A thick blanket of snow was already on the ground.
The Blizzard of 1899 quickly followed on the heels of the record cold when a storm tracked up the East Coast on Feb. 12 and 13. The snowstorm peaked in intensity in Washington on the afternoon of Feb. 13, with heavy snow and winds that reached 35 mph, with gusts of 48 mph and temperatures in the single digits.
At the conclusion of the blizzard, 34.2 inches of snow lay on the ground in Washington, the most on record. Of that amount, 20.5 inches fell during the blizzard. Drifting was generally around four to six feet; however, some drifts were as high as 10 feet on the D.C. streets.
3) Feb. 18-19, 1979: Presidents’ Day snowstorm
On Feb. 18, 1979, a small, but intense low-pressure system rapidly developed near Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moved northeast, out to sea.
Heavy snow began to fall in the District during the afternoon on Feb. 18, and by the morning of Feb. 19, Washingtonians awoke to the biggest snowfall since the Knickerbocker Snowstorm of 1922.
Washington National Airport recorded 18.7 inches of snow, while up to 26 inches of snow buried the city’s eastern suburbs. With six inches of snow on the ground before the storm, the snow cover in the Washington area ranged from 24 to 32 inches.
Washington was paralyzed by the fast-hitting snowstorm, which was poorly forecast. Coincidentally, U.S. farmers were in town protesting for higher wages, and they used their tractors to help with snow removal.
4) Jan. 22-23, 2016: Snowzilla
The snowstorm of Jan. 22-23, 2016, dubbed Snowzilla, is one of the all-time greats for Washington. Snow amounts of more than 20 inches were common in the immediate D.C. area, while paralyzing depths of 24 to 36 inches fell just west and north of the city. A few isolated locations in Loudoun and Frederick counties tallied 36 to 40 inches.
Reagan National Airport received 17.8 inches, which ties Feb. 5-6, 2010, but the official snow total was in question because the airport’s snowboard, used for measuring snow, was lost under deep snow during the storm.
After the storm, the snow melted fairly quickly in the days that followed, making this storm much less disruptive than other big snowstorms from the past.
5) Feb. 5-6, 2010: Snowmageddon
During the first week of February 2010, an enormous amount of tropical moisture moved north across Mexico with the southern jet stream. On Feb. 5, a storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico, tapping the ample moisture, and then moved across the Southeast United States to just off the North Carolina coast by the morning of Feb. 6.
The snowstorm, named Snowmageddon, was blocked from continuing far north by cold high pressure over Greenland, which funneled Arctic air into the D.C. area during the entire storm event.
The storm slowed down and shifted east, out to sea, after pummeling the Mid-Atlantic region with more than 24 hours of moderate to heavy snow.
Much of the immediate D.C. area recorded snowfall totals in the 20- to 24-inch range, with National Airport recording 17.8 inches. Dulles International Airport recorded an incredible 32.4 inches, while Leesburg, Va., recorded 34.5 inches.
Just four days after this storm, another blockbuster storm hit dubbed “Snoverkill” on Feb. 9 and 10, putting down six to 15 additional inches across the region. On top of the previous storm, the region’s snowpack ranged from 25 to 45 inches and Washington’s 2009-2010 seasonal snowfall total catapulted to 56.1 inches, the most on record.
6) Jan. 6-8, 1996: The Blizzard of 1996
The Blizzard of 1996 was massive in its widespread coverage of heavy snow. Every city along the northeast Megalopolis, from Washington to Boston, received between 17 and 30 inches of snow. Other snowstorms have been bigger for any given location in the Mid-Atlantic, but few snowstorms have affected such a large, highly populated area of the Eastern United States.
In the D.C. area, the snowfall ranged between 15 to 20 inches in southeastern areas and 20 to 25 inches in the northern and western suburbs. National Airport received 17.1 inches of snow, Dulles Airport received 24.6 inches and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport received 22.5 inches.
A prolonged dry slot and changeover to sleet during the middle of the storm in Washington kept it from rivaling the Knickerbocker Snowstorm of 1922.
7) Feb. 15-16, 2003: Blizzard of 2003
The snow and sleet storm of Feb. 15-16, 2003, shut down the D.C. area along with the entire northeast Megalopolis during the Presidents’ Day weekend. The average snowfall from Washington to Boston almost equaled the snowstorm of January 1996.
This storm resulted from a split jet stream with deep moisture produced from the southern jet stream interacting with cold air from the northern jet stream. Moisture from the southern jet stream, earlier in the week, brought flooding rains to Southern California and Las Vegas.
Officially, 16.7 inches of snow fell at National Airport and 22.1 inches fell at Dulles Airport. At BWI, 28.2 inches of snow fell, breaking Baltimore’s snowstorm record set during the January 1922 snowstorm. Generally, 20 to 28 inches of snow fell in Washington’s western and northern suburbs, while 15 to 20 inches fell from the District to the south.
Many schools were closed the entire week following the storm.
8) Feb. 11-12, 1983: The Megalopolitan Blizzard
The Feb. 11-12, 1983, snowstorm swept up the Eastern Seaboard, burying an area from Virginia to New York in a swath of very heavy snow. It was a textbook setup for heavy snow in Washington, with a nearly stationary high-pressure area sitting north of New York in a position to provide cold air while a moist, low-pressure system was moving northeast.
Many observers, particularly in the Maryland suburbs, reported several episodes of lightning and thunder. Thundersnow along the Eastern Shore produced extremely strong winds and whiteout conditions.
Washington’s southern and eastern suburbs recorded 15 to 20 inches of snow, while 20 to 30 inches fell in the northern and western suburbs. National Airport received 16.6 inches of snow, while 22.8 inches were recorded at both BWI and Dulles Airport. Winds gusting over 25 mph created drifts up to five feet.
9) Dec. 18-19, 2009: Snowpocalypse
The Dec. 18-19, 2009, snowstorm set the December record for D.C. area snow. At National Airport, 16.6 inches of snow fell, but reports ranging from 18 to 26 inches were common, including 20.5 inches in Arlington, 24 inches in Bethesda and 26.4 inches in Damascus, Md.
At BWI, 21 inches of snow fell and at Dulles Airport, 19.3 inches fell, also setting a December snowfall record.
It was all snow for the entire event, without a change to sleet or rain. For big winter storms in the greater D.C. area, an all-snow event is a rarity, particularly in December.
10) Feb. 7, 1936: The Blizzard of 1936
The Blizzard of 1936 began when a low-pressure system formed east of Florida and moved north to off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. Heavy snow started after midnight on Feb. 7 in Washington, and by late morning, more than a foot of snow had fallen. Light snow continued throughout the afternoon, ending in the evening.
The total snow accumulation in Washington was 14.4 inches. Temperatures fell to 16 degrees during the height of the snowfall.
Washington was on the northwest edge of the heavy snow, with up to 18 inches of snow falling in southern Maryland. Only three to six inches of snow fell in the region’s far northern and western suburbs. Norfolk, recorded nine inches of snow, the city’s heaviest snowfall in more than 40 years.
Blowing snow grounded all air traffic at Washington-Hoover Airport on Feb. 7. The airport remained closed on Feb. 8 while snow was cleared from the runways.
The snow melt in the wake of the storm contributed to the Great Spring Flood in March 1936 on the Potomac River.