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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 12/23/2008

'Nothing Takes Longer Than Waiting for Snow'

By Steve Tracton

A Snow Lover's Refrain

Welcome to winter, but where's the snow? From the latest (sometimes sensationalist) news reports, it seems snowstorms are everywhere (even New Orleans!) -- except, as local snow lovers (including myself) can attest, in the D.C metro region.

Although we've had periods of sufficiently cold conditions for snow, almost all the significant precipitation has been rain. To me, rain in winter is a decided waste of precipitation, and below-freezing temperatures an unquestionable waste of cold air.

Keep reading for a detailed look at the unfavorable odds of getting big snowstorms locally, and the difficulties predicting them...

Unfortunately, it is not unusual in this area for wintertime precipitation and the requisite cold for snow to be out of sync. Moreover, the characteristically narrow (often less than 10 miles wide) band of "wintry mix" between snow and rain frequently runs up the gut of the D.C. area. Suffice to say, getting a snowfall of consequence around here (let's say, more than an inch or two) is no easy task, and the odds of a substantial snowfall (say, greater than 6") this (or any) winter are a long shot.

All of which evokes what I believe is unquestionably the most apt expression describing the sentiments of snow lovers, "Nothing takes longer than waiting for snow" -- a refrain from a verse of the song, Waiting for Snow, in the John McCutcheon album, Wintersongs.


But, alas, D.C. and vicinity does get really big snowstorms once in a great while. That reality keeps the hope of snow lovers alive, spurring a profusion of wishful thinking that this will be the winter...

Not incidentally, it often impels bias by some otherwise credible forecasters towards over-predicting snow (a trait not exhibited by CWG forecasters!), including perhaps in some of the winter outlooks described in Jason Samenow's recent post.

For a more comprehensive assessment on prospects for a "big one" locally, I've turned to Paul Kocin, a well known and respected expert on winter weather. For several years Paul was the Weather Channel's Winter Weather Expert. Together with Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), he authored the definitive and most comprehensive book on winter storms ever compiled, "Northeast Snowstorms" (Volume I: Overview, and Volume II: The Cases. I recently spoke with Paul at NCEP in Camp Springs, Md., where he's currently employed.

Not surprisingly Paul emphasizes that being a snow lover in these parts requires patience almost beyond endurance. He told me, "Keep your expectations low and you'll have fun." To which I responded, "That's a lot easier said than done!" Paul's counter exclamation to me: "Get a life!"

Whiteout. Image courtesy Paul Kocin.

Even if relatively rare, Paul notes that "when it snows big -- it can be very big." Paul's lucid descriptions and photographs of past major snowstorms in the D.C. region are hard to top -- except, of course, experiencing the real thing.

None of the 10 "biggest" (listed below) comes very close to the 28" (drool, drool) which fell Jan. 27-29, 1922. Two of the top 10 have occurred in the last 12 years (in 1996 and 2003), so the notion that we're "overdue" doesn't really hold up when you consider the historical frequency of these events. Three times Twice in our observed past, the wait between top 10 storms has exceeded 20 years.


Just as frustrating as waiting for snow can be trying to forecast it. Even as one of the most foremost experts on the subject, Paul readily acknowledges that forecasting snow in this area can be a very humbling experience. He and others have a long history of successes and failures even at predicting events less than 12-24 hours in advance.

Probably the most successful prediction in recent times was that for the March 1993 Storm of the Century when for the first time National Weather Service meteorologists accurately predicted a storm's severity -- though not all important details -- five days in advance.

Knickerbocker Storm of 1922. Image courtesy Paul Kocin.

Notwithstanding the continued improvement of weather forecast models thereafter, the most spectacular bust was the Surprise Snowstorm, Jan. 24-25, 2000, which went unforecast until just before it began to bury the Washington and surroundings with a foot or more of snow. Paul recalls saying to himself at the time, "This can't be happening!"

Bottom line: Some snowstorms are inherently predictable, some are not -- "Bad Forecast? Blame it on the Butterflies."

Looking at future snow prospects and considering recent snowfall trends, it's difficult to be optimistic. "Winters are getting warmer, with less snow," Paul lamented. Jason also discussed these trends in a recent post.

Though Paul didn't say so explicitly, I surmise that after living in Atlanta for three years (while with the Weather Channel), where snow prospects are distinctly grimmer than here, Paul might be thinking that D.C. could become the new Atlanta in the snow department (Boston, my hometown, the new D.C.?).

I'd prefer not to freak out over that dismal prospect just yet. Instead, I'll dream about an epic blizzard with biting cold, sheets of snow, howling winds, near-zero visibility, and towering drifts plastering frosting on the layers of white cake.

Snow or no snow...


P.S. My paper, "Must Surprise Snowstorms be a Surprise?" has been published recently in the American Meteorological Society monograph, Synoptic-Dynamic Meteorology and Weather Analysis and Forecasting: A Tribute to Fred Sanders. For those wishing a reprint of this paper, please email your request to me at:

By Steve Tracton  | December 23, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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Wow-- If we have wait 20 years for our next big one (top 10), that won't be until 2023... Patience beyond endurance sounds about right.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Fortunately, help is available for this problem.

Posted by: CapitalClmate | December 23, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm visiting family in Cedar City Utah. When I got in yesterday there were already several inches on the ground, and more coming. We may get a further dusting today. Maybe a foot on Christmas.

But they're used to it here. Snow plows going all night. Never more than an inch or 2 accumulating on the roads. Even a foot of snow doesn't delay the schools. Especially as it's a nice, dry, powdery snow. Two inches or less are cleared with brooms.

Be nice to get a foot of the nice, powdery stuff in McLean...

Posted by: wiredog | December 23, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse


Nice article, an enjoyable read. One question though. While storms like the top-10 are obviously rare, I am wondering, historically speaking, how common 6"+ events are. It seems to me that most years feature one storm in the 6" range, but maybe its more like 1 in 2?

Posted by: jahutch | December 23, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse


In regard to the "get a life" response by Paul; This is something that Paul must continually have to repeat to himself. His career has been dominated over the last ten years by winter storms, but he tells - agonizingly - of personally experiencing significant wintry weather only 7 out of the 3,650 days in the last 10 years. So much for my, or just about anyone else's frustration waiting for snow.

The 20 year return period for a top 10 storm is misleading - sorry about that! Yes, the wait between top 10 storms has exceeded 20 years three times. It would have been better to cite the return periods of snow events compiled by the Washington/Baltimore NWS Office. Thus, for example, the average time between snowfall greater than 10" is 3 years and 7 years for more than 12". That's good enough for me - why be greedy. So, just maybe we’re overdue, and the wait for a big one is shorter than one might otherwise believe. Just more wishful thinking??

By the way Paul has managed to find a way to considerably reduce his forecast busts, at least in regard to the question of winter storm rain versus snow – he's assigned to providing forecasts for Alaska.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Some consolation is that few of us live at National Airport. The odds of a 13"+ snow is a little greater outside of the Beltway. Storms in Feb 2006, March 1993, January 1987 and Feb of 1987 all would have cracked DC's Top Ten list in at least parts of Montg. County. (Throw in the 15" Veterans Day Storm in 1987 in PG County for consideration and a few other storms I may have missed). In fact, three snowstorms in the past 25 years in Montg. Co. have surpassed all but the #1 storm in DC....the 1983, 1996 and 2003 storms all produced widespread accumulations of 20-24". Still, it IS a long, long wait.
Merry Xmas.
-Rob in Potomac

Posted by: DOG352 | December 23, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse


I gather snow is nothing new to Cedar City, while relatively infrequent in the DC Metro region. Around here it seems that just the possibility of even light snow evokes a crisis atmosphere. Markets become swamped with folks stocking up on milk, bread, and, of course, toilet paper - literally. It's said too that people begin abandoning cars on the Beltway even before snow begins.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I've lived in the D.C. area since 1962, and we have had measurable snow.....and measurable snowstorms......EVERY year, without exception, although on rare occasions, like the winter of 72-73, we had to wait till early February to see one.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | December 23, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

jahutch wrote: "...historically speaking, how common 6"+ events are."

Using daily snowfall data from 1948 - 2007 from the Univ. of Utah (missing data problems with some of their data) ...DCA observed 348 days with at least 1" of snow.

There were 52 events (15%) where snowfall was at least 6". Some of the events spanned more than one day.

The return period is 416 days or once every 1.25 years.

The return period for an event of 12" or more is 2,740 days or once every 7.5 years.

Posted by: toweringqs | December 23, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

According to Li...NAO was positive for the area/s record 1922 snowfall.

Just saying.

Also interesting to note; all the best storms come during the period spanning the last week of JAN and the first three weeks of FEB.

Posted by: toweringqs | December 23, 2008 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I believe I may be snow-cursed. I'm leaving in an hour or so to go back to Rochester, NY for the holidays. They've recieved 20+ inches of snow over the past few days according to my fathers high-tech measuring instrument, the deck railing. Yet upon my return, winds will turn southerly, temperatures will rise to near 50, and its going to rain until christmas. I give up...

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

This freezing-cold-and-dry-until-a-front-comes-through-and-pulls-up-southerly-air-ahead-of-the-precip business in DC is truly infuriating. I don't care if you're a snow lover or not. Cold rain is miserable.

Posted by: LaurainNWDC | December 23, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Re "measurable snowstorms......EVERY year, without exception":
1972-73 and 1997-98 each had a seasonal total of 0.1". That is only technically measurable.
1975-76 had 2.2", but never as much as 1" in any single month.
Other seasons with totals less than 4":

Posted by: CapitalClmate | December 23, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse


And to think on the eastern slopes of the Rockies in Colorado, it's the opposite situation... typically sunny and mild and any time there's a storm, they get snow. Talk about the best of both worlds...

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

"Three times in our observed past, the wait between top 10 storms has exceeded 20 years."

Could someone check their math?

1899 - 1900 = 1 year
1900 - 1922 = 22 years
1922 - 1936 = 14 years
1936 - 1958 = 22 years
1958 - 1966 = 8 years
1966 - 1979 = 13 years
1979 - 1983 = 4 years
1983 - 1996 = 13 years
1996 - 2003 = 7 years

I see TWO spans of more than 20 years, all the rest are 14 years or less. The only possibility I can see is for a twenty or more year period prior to 1899. However, the article does not say how far back the records go (1898 or 1798? somewhere between those two years?), so that is just speculation. When making assertions of 'Three times . . . the wait . . . has exceeded 20 years', speculation can NOT be entertained AT ALL.

Also consider the (then current) top 10 storms that were knocked off the list when 'new' top 10 storms made it onto the list, and how much snow did those 'old' top 10 storms drop? Did the 1966 storm of 13.8" drop a storm of 13.7" during the 1900 - 1922 period off the list, or a similar storm of some other period?

How many years had several storms that dropped 5" or so in a single month, or even in a single week, time-frame, totaling 15" or more? One storm dropping just 5" of snow, averaging 6 days between snowfalls, would drop a total of about 35" of snow over a 30 day period.

How about total snowfall in a single year? A top 10 list of those would be interesting to see. Better yet, a top 25 list would be more instructive.

Posted by: critter69 | December 23, 2008 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Top 25 Winters (DCA)
1898-99 54.4
1995-96 46.0
1921-22 42.5
1891-92 41.7
1904-05 41.0
1957-58 40.4
2002-03 40.4
1960-61 40.3
1910-11 39.8
1978-79 37.7
1890-91 37.1
1966-67 37.1
1917-18 36.4
1908-09 36.0
1899-90 35.6
1963-64 33.6
1935-36 31.8
1934-35 31.4
1986-87 31.1
1892-93 31.0
1933-34 30.7
1913-14 28.6
1965-66 28.4
1906-07 28.3
1982-83 27.6

The return period is 4.6 years for a season-total snowfall that would fall within the range of the Top 25 seasons.

Posted by: toweringqs | December 23, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse


You're right, we made an error with the three times a 20-yr wait statement. It's now corrected.

The other questions you ask are good ones, and would be good to cover in future posts.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | December 23, 2008 10:41 PM | Report abuse

I'm terribly sorry for all snow lovers in the DC area. A long time ago I made the move to Colorado, first the Front Range where you have a pretty good chance at a 'big' spring or fall storm -15"+ with the occasional surreal dump 5' which was had a couple of years back. I ultimately found it unsatisfying.

I've since moved to the Western Slope of Colorado which is where all the snow goes. They say my town averages something like 70-80" a year with last year breaking 115" and this December so far having dropped 40"+ and an other 10-20" expected over Christmas. Stil can't claimed to have fully sated my appitite, but I'm getting closer. I am considering moving about a thousand feet more up hill which should start getting me an average of something like 150"+

In any case I know there is a snowy enough place to satisfy all my internal love of flakes falling. If I may suggest a song by the String Cheese Incident (a Telluride jam band) 'round the wheel. Also known as 'waiting for the snow to fall'. It certainly gets me in the mood, of course here there is a reasonable expectation that the snow will come, just a question of when.

One last bit of advice for those folks that really need snow. Try to find a way to spend a winter or even just a month or two in either Steamboat Springs, CO or Silverton, CO. All I'm saying is that if you always wanted to see storm after storm of pure snow (no rain) with storm predictions like 6"-18" for small storms and 2'-4' with favored slopes receiving 5 for big storms. You really can live in a winter wonderland

Happy X-mas I'm going skiing

Posted by: boondoggle1 | December 24, 2008 4:21 AM | Report abuse

In NOVA a difference of 3 to 6 miles can make a difference in measured snow fall.
The area aorund the South Run Recreation Center may have a mix while in the Clifton/Centerville area it will be all snow. My bro will measure 3 to4 in and I will measure 7 to 8in.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | December 24, 2008 7:24 AM | Report abuse

If you love snow and can't be patient, move to Garrett Co. Md., only a couple hrs. away from DC, or better yet, the mts. of W.Va. west of the A.F.. Snowshoe has received 90 inches to date this winter!

Posted by: AugustaJim | December 24, 2008 8:08 AM | Report abuse

For all those where waiting for snow is not much more than blink of the eyes - I'm VERY jealous, envious, etc. Unfortunately there are matters exclusive of being a snow lover to pack up everything and move to a place like, e.g., Garret County, MD, or Colorado.

The next best thing is to go the route of storm chasers, except the target is a "biggie" snow storm, not a tornado. I've occasionally done just that (even as far as to Alaska) to satisfy -for a while at least - my lust (my wife says obsession) for snow.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | December 24, 2008 9:22 AM | Report abuse

In regard to manipulation and interpretation of the statistics of significant snowstorms in the DC Metro region:

Bottom Line: However one reads them, the stats mean very little, if anything, on whether we'll have a "big one" this winter - sorry about that.

The most relevant statistic related to snowstorms in these parts is that, if I'm off snow chasing or otherwise out of town, the odds go up significantly for snow in DC - don't take my word for it, just ask anyone at NCEP; I'm told that the "Tracton Out of Town Effect" is included in the computer models!

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | December 24, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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