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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/21/2010

"Bench" marking Washington's historic snows

By Kevin Ambrose

* Wintry mix tonight into tomorrow: Full Forecast *

Benches on the Mall after the Blizzard of 1996.

The snowfall produced from Washington's last three "historic" snowstorms have all been measured within one inch of each other at Reagan National Airport. It's quite a coincidence. The Blizzard of 1996 was 17.1", the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of 2003 was 16.7", and the Blizzard of 2009 was 16.4". While these storms produced very similar snow measurements at the airport, were the snowstorms and their respective snow cover really that similar?

After each of the above-mentioned snowstorms, I went on a photo shoot in D.C. and photographed the Mall's benches in the snow while walking between destinations. These bench photos can be used as "bench" marks for the snow. Let's examine the photos to compare the snow depths.

Benches on the Mall after the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of 2003.

For all three storms, I photographed a couple of days after the snowfall. Thus, the snow had settled over time and these photos are not a true representation of the initial snowfall. However, these photos do show a good view of the snow cover that resulted from each storm.

Benches on the Mall after the Blizzard of 2009.

Judging by the photos, the winner for snow depth after the storm is the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of 2003. The storm in 2003 provided a lot of sleet which created a denser snow pack that did not settle as much. In second place was the Blizzard of '96, followed closely in third by our latest storm in 2009. Regardless of how you measure the snow, all three snowstorms were very historic by Washington standards. I wonder how long we'll have to wait to see another snowstorm of this magnitude?

The Lincoln Memorial after the Blizzard of 1996.

Cross country skiing on the Mall in front of the Smithsonian after the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of 2003.

The Capitol in snow after the Blizzard of 2009.

By Kevin Ambrose  | January 21, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Photography  
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I wonder if the temporary fence behind the benches in the storm of '03 made any difference.

Posted by: smperk | January 21, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Great article & photos, Kevin!

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | January 21, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I was thinking about why the 2003 storm seemed so much more than the Dec 09 one, and I remembered that the winter of 2002-2003 there was a lot of little snows, because I recall that by the end of the winter even I, a huge snow lover, was done with having to clean off my car. However, I could not recall if we already had any snow on the ground before the President's Day storm hit. If so, that may have been the difference. Like if there was already 3 or 4 inches, it would have made the total appear larger.

Posted by: kallieh | January 21, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

ha! were you shorter in 2003...?!

my daughter remembers '03 as being almost up to her waist....! oh my gosh that was a great storm. naturally, these three are my favorite storms ever. the 96 one was when i made my first sculpture... been hooked ever since. both the 96 and 03 storms "seemed" a lot bigger than the 09 storm to me....

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | January 21, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Seems like we hit some sort of "limit" AOA 15 inches of snow, broken only in rare instances.

I think it has something to do with the situation of DCA right on the river.

There should have been another storm on the recent list of historic snowstorms...the March,1993 "Superstorm". The reason it isn't here is obvious...all that darned rain and sleet down here at Potomac River level at the height of the storm!

Posted by: Bombo47jea | January 21, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

in what month was the 96 storm?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | January 21, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

blizzard of 96 was in january

Posted by: asimo | January 21, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse


good point, but no I wasn't shorter. Though I did live further west then and now I'm right on the river so maybe I really did have more in 03. But looking at the bench pictures above, it also appears that 09 was less than 03. Just thinking of other possible solutions then just National Airport being a poor place to measure.

Posted by: kallieh | January 21, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

kallieh: In the immediate DC area, there was no snow on the ground before the Presidents' Day Snowstorm of 2003. The night before the storm we had rain that ended as a dusting of snow.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | January 21, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Kevin!

It must have been the more west vs more east thing then.

Posted by: kallieh | January 21, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

The 2003 storm paralyzed the area because it was one of those typical DC "cusp" storms, where we could have gotten 4 inches or 24, and jurisdictions just weren't prepared. My husband and I took the metro from Arlington to Silver Spring to visit family when there was about a foot of snow on the ground (and it was still running!), and we were still there three days later because all the Potomac bridges were closed.
With the 2009 storm, it was clear from about 48 hours out that we were in for a "major to historic event," and they were able to deploy crews effectively. (I was able to make it from Silver Spring to National Airport early Sunday morning with very little trouble this year. Not that my plane took off...)
It also didn't hurt that this was only the second real snow event of the year, and it was earlier in the season. The 2003 storm was later in a season that had already seen several snowfalls, and jurisdictions were being more cautious with their resources in an uncertain situation.

Posted by: JCR7 | January 21, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

What buzzes my curiosity, is why are the airport readings from our December 2009 snowstorm so off from backyard measurements? Everyone that I know of around the IAD area measured between 18" to 20" at least, but the Airport only recorded 16" even. Around DCA, acquaintances of mine measured anywhere from 22" to 24", yet Reagan National only published a snowfall report of 16.4". Why are there such considerable differences, especially when those who measured on their own did so in an accurate manner? Are the airport officials measuring from the middle of active runways lol?

Posted by: TheAnalyst | January 21, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

TheAnalyst: Your question has been asked after every major snowstorm. Reagan National has been consistently low on their snow measurements for years compared to nearby locations. My theory is that it's a combination of their low elevation and being located next to the Potomac River. It's also possible National Airport does not have a good, sheltered area for measuring snow. If DC had their official weather station in the hills of NW DC, the city's snowfall average would be higher.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | January 22, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

American University, which is nearly 400 ft. above sea level had 16 inches in the Dec. 2009 storm. And places in Alexandria only had 12 inches, so DCA did pretty well, considering, although another inch at DCA would have put this storm among the D.C.'s top four.

The 2003 storm was actually two separate snowfalls: a preliminary snow Saturday afternoon, then about an 8-9 hr. break before the heavier snow came. But they were (unfairly, I think) lumped together. In the first snowfall, DCA had only about one inch of show, although I was at Congressional Mall that afternoon and there was about four inches on the ground. The second part of the 2003 storm was 15-plus inches at DCA, and broke all-time records in Baltimore, Berkeley Springs and other places.

The mother of all D.C snows in the years I've lived here was in 1979. 18.7 inches of snow fell atop an earlier snow of about six inches, and it was very cold, in the lower teens, for much of the big storm.

Jumping to the 1996 storm, there was an initial big storm from Sat. night - Monday a.m. (which was also a two part-snowfall, the second part being wraparound snow, so it was technically the same storm). Then three smaller snows in succeeding days so that by Friday, the city was buried and the U.S. government only attempted to open on Thursday that week.

While impressive, the so-called Dec. 2009 "snowpocalypse" was something of a wannabe', compared to the 1979 and 1996 storms, because there wasn't any snow on the ground before the storm began and no additional snow ensued. But as noted, another inch and it would have been up there in the big, big time.

On average we get one 15-inch-plus snow around here per decade, at least since I moved to Washington in mid-1966. We may see a few one-foot snows in the next few winters. But statisically, it may be awhile before another "snowpocalypse" happens in Washington.

Finally, I want to mention a very unique situation, when I was a kid living at Camp Lejeune, NC. This semitropical location had 13.4 inches of snow in March, in three separate snowfalls. And it was so bad in western NC, that food had to be air dropped to folks living in the mountains. For someone who lived most of their childhood in central Florida, it was awesome.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 22, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

In the above post, I forgot to include the year of the heavy North Carolina snowfalls; it was in 1960.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 22, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

JerryFloyd1: I agree, the December 2009 storm fell just short of the all-time great storms in recent times, but the fact that it was a December storm made it truly impressive for this area. Regarding National's snowfall, I was on the Mall after the storm and it did seem like 16" of snow to me. I live near Dulles, however, and I think they were on the low side. I measured 21" to 22" of snow in my backyard and Dulles measured 18".

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | January 23, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Kevin, as so often happens hereabouts, during the December 2009 storm, there were great differences in the amounts of snowfall from place to place, e.g., 24" in Bethesda and I believe Columbia.

Re: December snowfalls, the very first December I spent here, in 1966, there was quite a bit of snow, including a significant Christmas Eve storm. Then a mild January, with only 1.8 inches of snow. Then all hell broke loose in February (by our standards), with a 10.6" DCA snowfall earlier in the month and later, a "twofer" snow of 6-7" at DCA. I vaguely recall other, smaller snowfall that month.

Anyway, the photos you took are great. It's just a shame there aren't more opportunities to "benchmark" snow hereabouts.

But... so far this winter has seemed remarkably like 1966-67 and the Arctic Oscillation may be reverting back to a negative phase, so quien sabe? Unless El Nino rules, February could be a good snow month hereabouts. So keep the camera handy!

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 23, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

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