No measurable snow has fallen this winter at Reagan National Airport, the official measuring site for Washington. This places the winter of 2020-2021 among a small group of years without even a dusting this deep into the season.
This winter’s snow drought is a continuation of what began last winter, the third-least snowy on record.
The city is approaching or already exceeding record streaks for snowless-ness, including the lengthiest time without even half an inch in a calendar day. Many cities in the Deep South have seen more snow.
The snow drought is partially tied to luck, unfavorable weather patterns and climate change. In the short term, there’s no obvious end to it although we are moving into the snowiest time of the year historically.
Virtually snowless this winter
Although a storm Dec. 16 blanketed much of the area in a coating to several inches, Washington officially recorded only a trace, as temperatures were a bit too warm for the snow to stick at National Airport. A trace refers to snowflakes observed in the air but that do not accumulate.
Using recent averages (based on the period 1991-2020), Washington should have seen about four inches of snow by now and expects 10 inches more through March.
Only 14 other winters since 1888-89 have gone without measurable snow to this point. If we make it another week, we’ll slide inside the top 10 for the latest first accumulation.
A historically long snow drought
Washington has now gone almost two years without seeing a half an inch of snowfall on any calendar day, the longest streak on record. The 694 days, including Thursday, surpasses the 693-day streak which ended Jan. 7, 1999.
Washington is also approaching the longest streak on record without any measurable snow. If it manages to go another three weeks without more than a trace, it will match the record streak of 381 days, which ended Feb. 12, 1960. Right now, the streak is at 362 days, the third-longest on record.
The snow futility began last winter
Last winter, the 0.2 inches of snow that fell Jan. 18 marked the fourth earliest final accumulating snowfall of the season. The season’s total snowfall of just 0.6 inches made it the third-least-snowy winter on record.
The 0.2 inches on Jan. 18, 2020, was also the only snow that fell that calendar year. That made 2020 the least snowy calendar year on record, ahead of the 0.5 inches in 1998.
Fits into a long-term trend
Snow droughts and snowless-ness have been common themes in the most recent decades as the climate has warmed.
Washington’s average snowfall has declined by more than half a foot, from roughly 21 inches in the late 1800s to around 14 inches today. In the past five decades alone, the region has seen winter average temperatures increase between three and five degrees.
The number of accumulating snow events per winter has declined from an average of six at the beginning of historical records to three today.
The current snow drought is not far removed from the longest period without at least a two-inch snowstorm that lasted almost three years, ending in February 2014.
However, Washington has also seen a number of blockbuster snowstorms in recent decades, even as average snowfall has declined.
As one example, the winter of 2015-2016 still stands as the only one on record without even a trace of snow through Jan. 14. However, less than 10 days later came the blizzard known as Snowzilla, tied for the region’s fourth-largest snowstorm on record. Fifteen to 30 inches of snow fell in just two days.
An unfavorable polar vortex and La Niña have depressed snow prospects
The lack of snowfall last winter was tied to a very strong and stable polar vortex, which bottled up cold air over the Arctic. It was simply too mild to snow most of the time.
This winter, snow prospects have been dampened some by the presence of a La Niña event in the tropical Pacific Ocean which often cuts back on winter storminess in the Mid-Atlantic.
In addition, to start this winter, the polar vortex was also very strong, much like last winter. However, in recent weeks, the vortex was disrupted and split apart. In theory, the vortex disruption should tilt the odds toward more cold air spilling south into eastern North America and heightened storminess. But due to configuration of weather systems in the Pacific, it has not worked out that way so far.
Some of the snowless-ness is bad luck
While Washington has remained snow-deprived, historically far less wintry places have seen substantial accumulation, including parts of the Deep South. Even when the large-scale weather pattern has been favorable (such as in the past week or two) for snow, individual storms, whose tracks are somewhat random, have managed to miss Washington.
Here’s a list of places that have seen more snow since Jan. 1 than Washington has picked up between this winter and last winter combined:
Austin — 1.3 inches
- The snow fell during an early January snowstorm that plastered the South with snow.
Jackson, Miss. — 1.2 inches
- Snow covered palm trees, with flakes the size of half dollars.
Vicksburg, Miss. — 0.7 inches
- Snow from the January storm was measured up to 3.5 inches nearby.
Oklahoma City — 5.1 inches
Waco, Tex. — 4.4 inches
- Waco’s 4.4 inches marked its heaviest storm total snowfall since 1982.
College Station, Tex. — 4.5 inches
- Jan. 10 was the city’s fourth-snowiest calendar day on record.
Shreveport, La. — 3.2 inches
Starkville, Miss. — 2.2 inches
Gatlinburg, Tenn. — 0.8 inches
- Nashville received a trace of snow Jan. 8 and 11.
Richmond — 1.0 inches
Madrid — more than a foot
Snow prospects are not hopeless
Mid-January to mid-February is historically Washington’s time to shine for snow. Most of its biggest snowstorms on record have occurred in this window when a significant portion of its average snow also falls. On the other hand, each day it doesn’t snow pushes the city into an even deeper drought.
Forecast models suggest little if any snow in the next 10 days; however, the models also show a continuation of a weather pattern which can be favorable for winter storms in the region if ingredients come together.
Snow lovers need not totally despair.
The La Niña winter of 2008-09 was essentially snowless until Jan. 27 when 1.9 inches fell. It was far from a severe winter for snow in the area, but the city finished with 7.5 inches, including a sizable event in early March.
There is still time.