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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 02/19/2008

"Huge Snowfall Shuts Down D.C. Area"

By Steve Scolnik

Floral St. in Washington, Feb. 19, 1979. Click image to enlarge. (Photo © Washington Post, via
The greatest snowstorm in more than half [a] century left the Washington area smothered under at most two feet of snow yesterday -- a magnificent white menace that virtually imprisoned the city and sent road crews battling to reopen streets for this morning's commuters. [Washington Post, page A1, Feb. 20, 1979]

Today is the anniversary of the second-largest Washington snowstorm of the 20th Century. Now known as Presidents' Day I, following the Presidents' Day II storm of 2003, the storm was originally known as the Washington's Birthday storm.

Following an early start with 3" of snow on the 26th-27th of November, the winter of 1978-79 had only a trace of snow in December and 4" in several small storms in January. After near-normal average temperatures in January, a prolonged cold spell extended through the first three weeks of February; only one day out of 21 was above average. For the week from the 9th through the 15th, the high temperature failed to reach 30°.

Storms on the 7th and 12th dropped 5.6" of snow each, and by the 18th, 6" of that still remained on the ground. Under a huge high pressure area (1050 mb) centered over the St. Lawrence Valley, the high on the 18th of 15° was 3° below the previous record lowest high for that date.

Surface weather map for the morning of Feb. 19, 1979, as the heavy snow is nearing an end in Washington. Click image to enlarge.

On Sunday morning, the 18th, heavy snow was falling in Charlotte, NC, with a temperature of 16°, and sleet was widespread through northern and central Georgia. On the coast, Savannah had freezing rain and a temperature of 28°. Snow began in the late afternoon in the DC area with a trace reported at 4 p.m. Light, but steady, precipitation amounts continued through the evening and picked up in intensity toward midnight, with 4.7" of fluffy snow being recorded from only 0.21" of liquid, over double the average ratio.

The storm dramatically increased in intensity in the early morning hours, with as much as 0.21" of precipitation (probably 4-5" of snow) falling in just the hour ending at 6 a.m. The official records show no thundersnow reports, but I distinctly remember observing one or two sharp flashes of lightning in Kensington, accompanied by a deluge of flakes resembling the inside of a rapidly shaken snow globe.

By late morning, snowfall had tapered off to a trace at 11 a.m. With the 14" which fell on the 19th, a record for the date which still stands and the third highest calendar day record for February, the storm total was 18.7". The depth on the ground was 22", the highest ever recorded at National Airport. The ultimate monthly total of 30.6" was the second highest for February in Washington history after Feb. 1899 and slightly ahead of the 28.7" reached in 2003.

In the afternoon, skies rapidly cleared to brilliant sunshine, a high temperature of 36°, and an amazing sight, described as an "overnight legend":

Working, walking, shoveling or shopping, on the job or on holiday at home, Washingtonians conducted themselves yesterday as if they knew they were part of an epic, legendary event -- The Great Snow of 1979. . . Platoons of cheerful, curious and awed pedestrians strolled down the city's major thoroughfares, which, all but devoid of other traffic, seemed to have been transformed into the carless avenues of another era.

Like many epic events, the storm marked a regime change, and following a low of 10°, the temperatures reached 40° for only the second time all month on the 20th, and the melting began. The high was 56° on the 22nd, and nearly 3" of cold rain on the 24th-26th washed away what was left from this historic storm. Temperatures were in the mid 60s by early March, reaching the mid 80s on the last two days of the month; 85° on the 31st set a new record for the date.

Unlike a storm which absolutely hammered Boston the previous winter, this storm was poorly handled by the forecast models. Predictions immediately before the event were generally 4-8", in the range of garden-variety heavy snow for the Mid Atlantic. The supercomputers of the time, with a maximum instruction rate of 13 million per second, were at least dozens, and probably hundreds, of times slower than the PC on which you're likely reading this. The resolution of seven vertical levels and a couple of hundred kilometers horizontal distance between points was too coarse to handle the intricate interaction of small and large scale features which produced the final result.

Later analysis revealed several interesting factors which turned an apparently ordinary looking storm into an historical event. The most direct cause of the extreme snow amounts was the interaction of the very cold air with the relatively warm waters of the Atlantic. This helped the development of a strong warm front along the coast. An important factor in the strengthening of the storm's circulation was the interaction between multiple jet streams at several different latitudes. The development of an unusual "fold" in the tropopause (boundary between the troposphere, where nearly all weather occurs, and the stratosphere above) also helped bring some additional energy from the stratosphere into the storm.

Let us know your recollections of the Presidents' Day I storm in the Comments below.

By Steve Scolnik  | February 19, 2008; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Local Climate  
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AT first when I read it, I thought it was for this week and that the models had gone completely crazy!

Posted by: Period | February 19, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Too bad I missed it by about 14 years.

Posted by: Period | February 19, 2008 6:40 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: d | February 19, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Anonymous | February 19, 2008 7:04 PM | Report abuse

The article said that the storm was pretty much a lucky fluke. The D.C. area has never been known as being a snowy place.

Posted by: Period | February 19, 2008 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I remember this very vividly; PG Schools were closed for a week. I also remember listening to a Capitals game on WTOP and hearing Gordon Barnes interrupt the game with breaking news alerts on the storm, each time upping his projected accumulation.

Posted by: David | February 19, 2008 7:30 PM | Report abuse

On Feb. 18-19, 1979, I was at college in central Virginia. I believe the town saw 12 inches of snow from this storm, and the college was closed for only the second time in its then almost 150 year history. Fortunately for all the hungry and hungover students, the cafeteria did manage to open for lunch on the 19th.

Posted by: Murre | February 19, 2008 7:33 PM | Report abuse

The Storm of '79 was the first MAJOR snow storm I remember in the DC region. I was born in the great storm of '58 - even delivered to the hospital in a fire truck because all the other emergency vehicles got stuck - but I obviously don't remember it. :-) Back to '79. Having grown up overseas in the tropics (Phillipines, Rio de Janeiro) snow was, and still is, a cool phenomenon. The storm of '79 was a tool for fun. I was a truck driver for a small company and I had the 1 ton stake-body truck in my driveway. The side "stake panels" came out easily enough to be used as sleds. Woo-Hoo.
The first night after the storm found me at Pinecrest Golf course in Annandale. Back then there was a hill on the back nine that was to die for. Atleast 40 people were on the hilltop with a bonfire and kegs of beer. Sledding was never more fun than that. Later back at the house we grilled steaks and shrimp and went to bed feeling like we were in snow heaven.
This scene (to a degree) was replayed in '83 and '96.
Ah! The good 'ole days.
Bring on the snow!

Posted by: PJ Mt. Vernon | February 19, 2008 7:45 PM | Report abuse

hope that in 30 years someone will post an article that says "Huge snowfall shuts down D.C. area" for this storm late week!

Posted by: sam | February 19, 2008 7:46 PM | Report abuse

accuweather changed their thurs. nite prediction from sleet and freezing rain to 1-3 inches o' snow. Mabe a sighn of things to come

Posted by: sam | February 19, 2008 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Jamie F. (Majie, Emaj, Shmaj) is CRAZY

Posted by: PETER SMITHERS | February 19, 2008 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Steve, you just made me ultra-depressed. :P Just kidding...

Really now, thanks for posting that! It is cool looking at the history of the weather. It's almost as good as looking at the future of weather...and the possibility of snow. That always makes me happy. Then the thunderstorms do. I always get that ultra-geeky rush from seeing a HUGE storm closing in on Lake Ridge, then the wind picks up and it's pure insanity for 20 minutes.

But for now I'll take the 2 feet of snow please. :)

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | February 19, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse

is anything like that huge sleet storm we had last year in the cards with this system? (god i hope not)

Posted by: JJ | February 19, 2008 8:30 PM | Report abuse

JJ: now THAT was out of left field, last year. I took video at 1230AM on that Wednesday with all the sleet falling, and it was the eeriest noise I'd ever heard. The next morning there was 3" of sleet on the ground. Luckily I got it off my mom's car before it froze into 'glacial ice', as Sue Palka put it. If you were at the top of the hill and slid down, it turned into a "clear your schedule" event trying to get back up the hill. Trust me, it happened to me 3 times (you'd think I would have learned the first time, right?). LOL

Posted by: weatherdudeVA | February 19, 2008 9:09 PM | Report abuse

tomorrow storm seems to be very downplayed...will we get a storm update tonight??

Posted by: strangldangel | February 19, 2008 9:17 PM | Report abuse

But I still see two snowflakes on Wednesday!

Posted by: missy | February 19, 2008 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I'll try to post a quick update by 11:15pm

Posted by: Jason, Capital Weather Gang | February 19, 2008 10:20 PM | Report abuse

I remember that storm well. On that Sunday evening, I drove from Fairfax to Tyson's Corner(Teddy's Roughrider Lounge)and returned around midnight. The roads were snow-covered but no problem to drive. When I awakened the next holiday morning, I couldn't believe my eyes. I must have peered out the window about three times - the cars in the parking lot were all little snow-covered blips. I found it hard to believe that all that snow fell in those six hours. And it didn't do any good to dig out your car - you weren't going anywhere because of the roads.

Posted by: Tony Bartley | February 19, 2008 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Oh yeah, this was the mother of all snowstorms in the 42 years I've lived hereabouts, including the Jan 1997 blizzard. I live in Glover Park and we had 30" on the ground, counting the previous snow that hadn't melted.

And it was so cold. For most of the storm the temperature hovered around 11-12 degrees, rising up into the 20s only in the storm's final hours.

It was so much fun walking in the eerily quiet streets during the early morning hours. Bring it on again!

P.S. It was 50 minus fifty something in upstate New York the morning the snow began. The coldest reading ever recorded in that state.

Posted by: Jay | February 19, 2008 10:29 PM | Report abuse

SLCB update/map tonight?

Posted by: Chase, Luray | February 19, 2008 10:31 PM | Report abuse

I remember Teddy's Roughrider Lounge ;-) And I also remember the storm. Had to walk to work for a few days -- nobody was able to get their cars out, much less drive.

Posted by: Donna in Ashburn | February 19, 2008 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Ahhh, just watched Obama speak.

ANYWAYS, keeping politics out of the discussion ;-)

Fired up and ready to go, for the 11:15 update! Hehehe, sorry...

Posted by: Peter | February 19, 2008 10:31 PM | Report abuse

GFS coming in with a little more moisture tomorrow. Trying to pull off some last minute enhancement of precip -- saw something similar on DEC 5.

Posted by: Ian, Capital Weather Gang | February 19, 2008 10:46 PM | Report abuse

NWS Message

Posted by: JJ | February 19, 2008 10:48 PM | Report abuse

the GFS is not looking to good for the DC area, looking great for Trenton and above, but DC it looks to warm for a lot of snow.

Posted by: thejesse2442 | February 19, 2008 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the stories. Keep them coming. Just because a post isn't at the top doesn't mean the conversation has to end. Personally, I don't have a story, as I was just two years old at the time. The snow was probably as tall as I was.

Posted by: Jason, Capital Weather Gang | February 20, 2008 12:49 AM | Report abuse

I remember that storm well. I was living on the top floor of one of the old dorms at UMd College Park, and when I went to bed there was about 4 inches of snow on the ground, and when I got up for my 8 am class, due to the deep snow cover, there were no visible features outside except for other buildings, and classes were cancelled for the first time in living memory! Took 3 days to find and dig my car out of the parking lot!

Posted by: Scott | February 20, 2008 2:04 AM | Report abuse

I was in 8th grade. I remember that WRC had this young guy, Ryan, who'd started there recently doing the weather. And another young guy, with big hair, named Vance, doing the news. At 6PM the call was for 6 inches or so, by 11 PM it was up to 8 inches.

I woke up to 2 feet. The schools in Fairfax were closed for the week.

I remember that morning walking to the Safeway in McLean. A couple 4wd vehicles owned by the checkers were there and the store was open. There were a couple of horses tied off at the front of the store. I didn't see that again until I lived in Utah in the 90's.

That afternoon every guy over the age of 10 who lived on the street was out there with snow shovels, clearing the road. A conga line of guys with snow shovels. The plows didn't get to the side streets for days.

The next day I made $90 shoveling one driveway. It was maybe two car lengths long, but the family had just moved up from South Carolina. They'd never seen that much snow.

Posted by: wiredog | February 20, 2008 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I am a native washingtonian and remember this storm quite clearly. I grew up in Manor Park DC and I remember all the men on the street got together to shovel out our small residential street that was unlikely to ever see a plow. It was such a winter wonderland. I was 12 and remember being out of school and sledding in our back yard, building snow forts, lots of hot cocoa and walking miles to the grocery store to replenish. 2003's storm was also fun, I was a mom by then and was able to measure the snow by sticking my kid outside, we had a blast there too but it was not quite as astonishing since we had a bit more warning.

Posted by: montgomery village md mom | February 20, 2008 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I was in 5th grade at Ft. Washington Forest Elementary in Prince Georges. I remember the stretch of bitter, bitter cold and the previus storms that cancelled and delayed school. That night, I went to sleep with fingers crossed that school would be canceled (again!). When we woke, the snow had drifted to cover the entire bottom half of the sliding glass door in our den. We still have the pictures we took that clearly show the layers -- starting with the grainy old snow at the bottom then each of the different textures, from fine to fluffy, that had built up overnight. I could never have dreamed that I wouldn't just have A snow day, but a whole week of 'em!

Posted by: former pgc-er | February 20, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I remember that period very well. I was very pregnant with my first child that February 12-24, 1979. I shoveled snow on my due date, Feb. 12, to help things along. During that week, more snow kept falling and by Saturday night to Monday morning North Portal Drive, NW., DC, was completely snowed in and some friends in the child-birth class knew that an alternate due date was February 22. I do remember the radio announcers were asking for drivers with 4-wheel drive autos to help provide transportation for those in need--hospitals, etc. and I also remember there was a woman in labor stranded in a car on Suitland Parkway who was on her way to a hospital and she needed help. My parents called from Western New York to see if I was alright (and, hopefully, not in labor); and the Rector from my church called as well. Not many were going to work, the Federal Government was closed for the Tuesday and Wednesday, buses and Metrorail were not running. On Thursday, my husband went to work for the first time that week. The snowplows cleared off North Portal Drive, NW., Wednesday night. We were running out of bread, so I baked bread and was very glad to get to the nearby Giant to stock-up. A friend in California called that Thursday to see how I was doing and could not believe that the sun was shining and the snow was melting. (Ten days later, I was delivered of a 9 lb. 15 oz. baby girl.)

Posted by: M D G Whitford | February 20, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse

I too remember the '79 storm - living in Kensington, I was hanging out with friends at the Variety Records store in Wheaton Plaza - my mother made me get in the car so she could drive me back to school at U of MD. The next day I walked with my roommate around campus, across the football field at Byrd Stadium through knee-high snow. I was bumbed I had to hang out on campus in my dorm room instead of at home!

Posted by: CSH in Leesburg | February 20, 2008 7:57 PM | Report abuse

I clearly remember that storm. I was 7 months pregnant with my son. My sister was snowed in at my apartment. I remember us going outside looking for her car (Pontiac Sunbird). We were able to see only a little of the top of the car. The snow had literally covered it completely. I remember that being a beautiful storm. (Of course, it wasn't for those who had to shovel it.)

Posted by: DAA | March 25, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

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