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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 12/20/2009

The Perfect Snowstorm

By Kevin Ambrose

...for a snow lover...

* Full Forecast, SchoolCast, and FedCast | Weather Wall *
* Report snow totals (view map) | NWS snowfall reports (view map) *
* The latest storm news, traffic, and cancellation info | Travel tips *

The Jefferson Memorial in snow Saturday, submitted by scottlunt.

Everyone knows that Washington is not considered a snow town, but on occasion, we do get the big snows that rival the storms from Boston, Chicago, and other northern cities. I have experienced every major D.C. snowstorm going back to the Presidents' Day storm of 1979 and the real biggies that stick out in my memory are: 1979, 1983, 1987(back-to-back storms), 1996, 2003, and now 2009. There are plenty of other storms that also come to mind, but I'm talking about the knee-deep snow dumps that transform our area into a winter wonderland.

Of the big D.C. snowstorms, I think only a few storms really achieve the status of "The Perfect Snowstorm." Keep reading for my criteria for the perfect snowstorm and check out some snow photos from the Washington Post user gallery.

Georgetown in snow Saturday, submitted by GovFlack.

Here is my list of criteria for judging the perfect snowstorm:

1) Snow depths of 20" or more. I'm not talking about 20" at Reagan National Airport, I've never seen that happen in my lifetime, but 20" inches of snow over much of the immediate DC area. This has happened six times since 1979, by my count. The deepest snow that I've seen in our area occurred during the Blizzard of '96, with many areas receiving totals around 2'. With this storm, I measured 22" in my back yard and snow totals in our area ranged from 18 to 24".

2) No changeover to sleet, ice, or rain. Precipitation changing from snow to mixed precipitation is very common for our area. Once a changeover of precipitation happens, we rarely see a changeover back to snow with additional accumulations. The Presidents' Day storm of 2003 is an example of a storm where the the snow turned to sleet in the immediate DC area and kept snow accumulations from reaching astounding levels.

3) No dry slots occurring during the storm. Big storms often produce dry slots over large regions where precipitation will shut off during the height of a storm. We were dry slotted during the Blizzard of '96 that caused the snow to end for many hours. For snow lovers, it's painful to be in the dry slot of a major snowstorm.

The snow measurement in Sterling, VA Saturday, submitted by jubee200011.

4) Sub-freezing temperatures for the duration of the storm. It seems to me that the majority of DC snow events begin with the temperature slightly above freezing, then as the storm progresses, the temperature falls to freezing or below. When the temperature is well below freezing for the duration, every flake accumulates and the snow is usually powdery, not wet and sloppy. Every flake from our past storm accumulated, even at the warmer locations downtown.

5) Cold weather following the storm. While this is not necessarily a characteristic of actual storm, I prefer storms where the snow remains on the ground for several days following the storm. I remember how quickly the snow melted after the Blizzard of '83. Many prefer quick snow melts, I enjoy deep snow cover; it's rare for DC.

6) A weekend storm. It's kind of amazing how our big snowstorms seem to occur on the weekends. I believe every snowstorm I listed above occurred on a weekend, or spilled into the weekend. Weekends are best for most people, except retailers, since we have more time to enjoy the snow, or shovel out.

The Air and Space Museum Saturday, submitted by mattiew.

By the criteria I listed above, Saturday's snowstorm has achieved the perfect snowstorm status. We had subfreezing temperatures, no changeover of precipitation to ice, no annoying dry slots, and cold weather should follow which should make for a rare white Christmas in DC.

Of the other storms that I mentioned, the Blizzard of 1996 was awesome, despite the dry slot. The 1996 storm was also quickly followed by other snow events and the snow lasted on the ground for well over a week. I would qualify the back-to-back snowstorms of 1987 as the perfect snowstorm, even though they were actually two separate, big storms in quick succession. The snowstorms of 1979 and 1983 were great, but they melted too quickly for my liking. I'd be interested to hear what you consider to be "The Perfect Snowstorm."

By Kevin Ambrose  | December 20, 2009; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Photography  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Calm start to Christmas week
Next: Washingtonians react to storm and storm stats


Could it be ... FIRST??

Posted by: ChickenLady | December 20, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I think the uniformity of accumulations also helped make this a 'perfect' storm. With the exception of the airport, seems like everyone in the immediate DC area got 19-23 inches. Allowing for variables in measurement time and technique, it's almost a wash.

Posted by: DOG3521 | December 20, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Third! LOL.

Hard to believe I cleared the car off last night and made a run to the store, because looking at it needs the brush again. And the shovel. And the salt. *sigh*

Kim buried in Manassas

Posted by: ksrgatorfn1 | December 20, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: MikeLicht | December 20, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone know if the Post has posted anything about newspaper deliveries anywhere? I mean considering the article on how poor Metro was in informing some of their passengers about the 1pm shutdown, I'm sure the Post wouldn't imitate poor communication with their own customers, right? Right?

Posted by: prokaryote | December 20, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I think the fact that it occurred in mid-December also bumped it up on my scale. It means that it IS possible in our area to get a major storm before the new year begins.

Posted by: rocotten | December 20, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

17 inches on my back porch in southeastern Silver Spring. Woo hoo!

Posted by: Murre | December 20, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Prokaryote, up here in Gaithersburg, we got both our Saturday and Sunday copies of the Post. Way to go WP delivery crew!

Posted by: kickabout | December 20, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in SoCal so outside mountain snows I never saw much. After living in CT for almost a decade I saw a few pretty intense events. Without question this storm ranked in my top 1-3, perhaps #1. Though we average fairly little per year compared to places further north it's pretty amazing we can rival just about any place when it comes to getting a big dump of snow. Looks like the snowy winter forecasts have verified even before it starts officially! While it will be hard or impossible to top this one I thnik we'll see another big event or two.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Kevin, I agree with your criteria for a perfect snowstorm. And while I would rather not shovel so much snow, it is also nice to shovel something that is pure snow.

Posted by: Murre | December 20, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

All the neighbors were out this morning shoveling the cars out, the street (plow can't get down and it is a private road), sidewalks. Even the little ones were out with their little shovels. Not a lot of help, but they had so much fun.

Posted by: epjd | December 20, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I measured 21 inches in my backyard in Chevy Chase NW DC. That's about the most I've seen with the exception of the Blizzard of '66 which, if I recall correctly, came late in in January and dumped over 20 inches, as well. The difference in '66 was that the winds were incredible making even a brief walk quite a challenge.

Posted by: Tearanew | December 20, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

One more criteria for a perfect snowstorm: TV mets playing catchup. I'd love to have a mashup of Bob Ryan saying one to three, then three to six, then four to eight, etc.

Look, I know it's tough at -48 to -72 hours, and the TV audience wants to know everything yesterday, but the accumulations dance played by TV wx folk is amusing, and adds to the overall carnival atmosphere.

Thanks, CapKids. Eggzelent job this week.

Posted by: ennepe68 | December 20, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse


For full disclosure, I know that we around here were upping our accums right up until the storm, even though we were pretty much spot on for most of Friday.

It's tough to forecast storms for the DC area, because unlike other spots in the country that are more "favorable" for snow, just one minor change to the track, intensity, duration, or even size of a storm can have HUGE impacts to what we see here in DC. So we almost have to hedge that "something will go wrong" until it's clear that it really won't. As everyone knows in the region, we've all had a history of getting burnt before, so we want to reduce that risk as much as possible.

However, again, with that said, we appreciate the kind words, and personally, feel that we did pretty awesome in getting on this storm as early as reasonably possible.

Posted by: JJones-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

No Beltway or Interstate in 1966? Granted, I was 8 years old at the time but I recall the beltway was already in operation and was the Interstate System aurthotized in 1955?

The wind....that was the biggest difference between then and now. Yesterday's storm came through with moderate winds. The Blizzard of '66 had winds strong enought to overturn a DC Transit Bus on Columbia Road the evening it struck!

Posted by: Tearanew | December 20, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

The "unofficial" figure for Columbia Heights West/Baileys Crossroads: 15.5--16 inches.

Flat-ground undisturbed area measurements at 11AM vary from 13 to 17 inches, indicative of some drifting. No thundersnow here. The storm began aoa 9:30 PM Friday evening and ended around 8 PM yesterday evening, nearly a 24-hour event. Peak snow seemed to occur from yesterday morning to mid-afternoon. Early TV forecasts had predicted late afternoon to evening peak.

Preliminary outlook for the next event: Temperatures in the mid-thirties ought to favor a wintry mix or mix-to-rain event. Plain rain seems to be dead wrong unless we get a 45-degree or higher "blowtorch" Wednesday or Thursday. The cold-air column may be insufficient for all snow, but cold-air damming seems to favor sleet/freezing rain.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | December 20, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised... still very few school closings for tomorrow.

Posted by: edwardappleby | December 20, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Just got a text message saying Prince William schools are closed tomorrow on code red. SAC is also closed. They'll start calling other schools soon...

Posted by: southbridgemom | December 20, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Any chance of melting then re-icing problems for Monday and/or later in the week?

Posted by: swimdude412 | December 20, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

big shout out to all washington post distributers... my dad has delivered papers for over 26 years and snow has never stopped paper deliveries!

Posted by: vm114 | December 20, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Wish the schools would make a decision. I can't see P.G. having school tomorrow, but it would be nice to have that settled.

Posted by: AnneArundel_mom | December 20, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Montgomery is officially closed on Monday now.

Posted by: edwardappleby | December 20, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

To me "the perfect snowstorm" is one that happens elsewhere.

Of course, I grew up in the south and never saw snow for myself until I was 24, so I may be biased against the stuff.

Posted by: greggwiggins | December 20, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Blizzard of 66 was brutal with regards 2 wind. Shoveled out the driveway then Dad called & said he wasn't coming home, wind blew snow back in driveway, shoveled it next day & then he called again saying he couldn't get home. Had 2 shovel out 1 more time b4 he got home. Had drifts close to 8ft on side of the house.

Posted by: VaTechBob | December 20, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Waiting for Walter. I hope he'll post here in comments when his masterpiece is done and photographed, there are already 500+ pics in the reader photo gallery.

Posted by: ChickenLady | December 20, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

This was, indeed, a "perfect snowstorm" for this snowlover!! I measured 20.5 inches on my patio deck this morning here in Camp Springs, MD.

CWG - What is the prognosis for more snowy weather on Christmas day, and the days immediately following?

Posted by: johnnierat | December 20, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I think everyone who measured off their decks or patios next to the house overstated the amount of snow they got. Even thought the winds were not real strong the snow was dry enough to roll off the roofs and onto the ground next to the house to some degree. DCA ~ 16.5 IAD ~ 18 and I measured 16-17 in my yard in Falls Church. Any comments?

Posted by: Bobrebl | December 20, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse


Nice write-up. One thing that I think about is the snow flakes. Love to watch 'em come down. But these were not flaky at all.

But I agree with you, this was perfect (well, for me, almost...)

Posted by: jaybird926 | December 20, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Current temp. in Burke: 34.9 with clear skies!

I'm getting a little worried about Fairfax County schools. They haven't said anything about a snow day yet. Is there still a good chance for a snow day tomorrow? Thanks!

Posted by: Yellowboy | December 20, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I would be VERY surprised if Fairfax had school tomorrow. The main roads may be fine, but there are so many side roads and sidewalks that need work. I don't know why they haven't called it!

Posted by: icecubedowntoilet | December 20, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised the Convention Center made it just above 34 degrees here, downtown! Main routes look very passable now. Walking still stinks though!

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I remember the 1966 blizzard. It was on the front page of the Miami Herald, when we were living in south Florida.

Trudging out to my back porch from the front door, I measured 14.5 to 16.5 inches of snow on the ground, in an area that was exposed to what wind I had yesterday.

Posted by: Murre | December 20, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

City of Alexandria and DC schools closed tomorrow. I don't see how or why Montgomery schools would open on Tuesday, since winter break begins on Wednesday.

Posted by: Murre | December 20, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I agree. This was a perfect snowstorm, and the 16.4" of snow recorded at DCA is respectable indeed. I am glad to have witnessed it.

There are many wonderful views of DC and the snowfall from the many webcams around the city on:

Posted by: otavio | December 20, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Prince Georges County Public Schools are closed tomorrow

Posted by: slackermom | December 20, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

OPM website has Federal Government in D.C. closed for Monday but I haven't seen it announced other places (or I am deaf/blind). You have to click into status from the main page and then choose D.C.

Posted by: IMFT | December 20, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Kevin & jaybird926-

I agree with #2 and 4 the most due to the perfect snowflakes that fall and stick under those conditions. Yesterday, I saw many dendrites (perfect hexagons with branched arms) and needle-shaped flakes. They maintained their shape after they landed and didn't melt overnight, which gave the snow a glistening quality under the street lights last night. Beautiful!

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Wtop announced the fed gov't is closed tomorrow.

This is also the case on OPMs website

Enjoy the day off Feds! As well as the private sector who uses the feds as a benchmark for closing!

Posted by: markinva | December 20, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

OPM is the offical word for the federal government. It is amazing that they have announced that they will be closed on Monday before the majority of the school systems.

Posted by: bdeco | December 20, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Went out for a short walk this afternoon around Glover Park. Not much surprise they closed just based on what I saw. Main streets OK (to drive on), everything else still a big mess for the most part.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | December 20, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

What's the deal with icing for tonight and/or the next few days? Thanks in advance!

Posted by: swimdude412 | December 20, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I am just surprised I don't see it on the closings links on WAPO - unless I a missing something. The CAPX dudes (and dudette - nod to Ann) may want to tell their WAPO friends to get with it.

Posted by: IMFT | December 20, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Bobrebl, I think you have a point. We certainly had a lot of snow piled up on the deck coming off the roof. I made my measurements (21") in multiple locations in the yard.

Posted by: spgass1 | December 20, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Fairfax County has closed schools Mon, Tues, Wed. So no school until after the New Year.

Posted by: Vienna8425 | December 20, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

A huge shout-out to everyone out there who lent a hand to somebody else this weekend. I got some help today when I really needed it. People are really good at heart!

Posted by: natsncats | December 20, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

with fairfax closed all week, what are the chances of prince georges county being closed tuesday and wednesday as well?

Posted by: fragglerocker | December 20, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Good list... though I'd argue that the "perfect storm" should happen on a weekday.

We lucked out this time, but part of any good storm is waiting for the announcement and then getting the "snow day". I get excited about having off now (blackberry be damned) and remember how nuts I would get as a kid when I heard about the closure on the radio.

Posted by: MikeJC | December 20, 2009 10:49 PM | Report abuse

To be perfectly honest, the perfect storm would be a lot like this one, except with more snow (like neverending), bigger & fatter flakes, and on a workday.

Posted by: BruinGirl2001 | December 20, 2009 11:24 PM | Report abuse

There are a lot of posts here and I havent read any of them so apologies if I repeat any sentiments. I've also lived through many DC snow storms, dating from 1959. I've spent a number of years away from the area, in Boston and Dallas, but have been back in DC (Leesburg to be precise) since '01 and still feel like the little kid I was growing up in Kensington in the early 60's, when the big ones come through the mid-atlantic. My own kids ( now 16 and 14 years old) love the snow as much as I do and my wife does (a native New Yorker) - and this weekend has given us an opportunity to enjoy all the things we associate with a good snow fall; hanging out with friends, good food, good drink, shoveling the drive/walk (which we actually think is kind of fun) and just sitting around watching the snow fly. What a GREAT weekend.

Thanks CWG for staying on top of things and keeping a level head, which is what I've come to expect from you.

Posted by: TerpInTime | December 21, 2009 1:17 AM | Report abuse

It is not possible for snow to be perfect, unless it is the look at one snow flake. I HATE SNOW.

rocotten: check for the Vetern's day storm in November.

Posted by: linda_521 | December 21, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

A few thoughts related to the comments:

Back when I was in school, I would have wanted the perfect snowstorm to be on a school day to maximize snow days. As an adult, it's easier to relax with the snowstorms on weekends.

Regarding forecasting, a general rule I've noticed is that Richmond should be in the bullseye of a snowstorm 72-84 hours out for DC to get the big snow. It seems the weather models trend north with big storms.

Regarding even bigger snows, back in 1772 Washington and Jefferson experienced a 3' snowstorm in Mount Vernon and Monticello. I've always wondered if we will see a snowstorm of that magnitude in our lifetime. A storm like that would be terrible disruptive, as you can imagine.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | December 21, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

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