Record-breaking Holiday Snowstorms

Folks who have lived in the northeast United States for an extended time may remember some memorable Christmas Day snowstorms, but the most blockbuster Christmas Day storm in recent memory occurred back in 2002. That storm brought 19.2 inches of snow to the Albany International Airport and over 30 inches in some areas west of the Capital Region. Thus, this storm ranks as the largest Christmas Day storm since measurements were first taken at the Albany Airport back in 1874. Low pressure formed off the Virginia coast on the morning of December 25. Explosive deepening, or intensification, of the cyclone occurred during the morning on Christmas Day and light snow began at the Albany Airport shortly before 5:00 AM.

1. Courtesy NOAA/Weather Prediction Center

Periods of light snow continued throughout the morning, and became heavy after 1:00 PM.  Snowfall rates of up to 3 inches per hour occurred during the afternoon, and thundersnow was reported around the region.

2. Radar image from approximately 1:30 PM showing intense snow bands over upstate NY. Courtesy National Center for Atmospheric Research

In total, 21 inches of snow fell at the Albany Airport as a result of the storm, 19.2 of which occurred on Christmas Day, making it the 9th greatest snowfall on record, and smashing the previous record Christmas Day snowfall, which was 11.8 inches in 1978.

By the morning of December 26, the storm had accelerated off to the north and east and was located south of Nova Scotia.  However, the active weather pattern continued, as a storm brought mixed precipitation and some icing on New Year’s Eve into New Years Day 2003.  Then, all eyes turned to the next major winter storm which was to bear down on the area beginning on January 3, 2003.

While it doesn’t seem possible that two blockbuster storms could occur so close in time (and around major holidays!), the atmospheric pattern was favorable for strong coastal storms to develop during late 2002 and early 2003.  Strong low pressure was again forming off the Virginia coast on the morning of January 3.  Snow began at the Albany Airport just prior to 6:00 AM and continued, heavy at times, through the morning and afternoon.  The event was of longer duration than the Christmas Day 2002 storm, and snow, though lighter in intensity than on January 3, persisted through much of the day on January 4.  A total of 20.8 inches of snow fell in Albany, and totals over 20 inches were also reported in Schoharie and Herkimer counties to the west.

3. Courtesy NOAA/Weather Prediction Center

So, how historic of an event was this double-barrel series of storms? Well, the last time there were two 20+ inch snowstorms in one winter in the Albany area was during the historic winter of 1887-1888.  However, in that season, one storm occurred in December, while the other was the historic ‘Blizzard of 1888’ which brought over 40 INCHES of snow to Albany on March 11-14, 1888.  So, while the Blizzard of 1888 was an extremely rare event, it is likewise just as rare for two historic snowstorms (# 9 and 10 on the list of top 20 snowstorms for Albany, NY) to occur within a 10-day period.

4. Courtesy: NOAA/ National Weather Service at Albany

What will Christmas Day 2018 look like?  Well, the National Weather Service is continuing to monitor the forecast models.  While we have had a quiet December after a very active November in upstate New York, there are some indications that the pattern may again become unsettled in the 10-15 day time frame.  Stay tuned as Christmas approaches- we will disseminate National Weather Service watches and warnings via our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ShadeTreeMet!

One Reply to “Record-breaking Holiday Snowstorms”

  1. I just read this and decided not to complain about the weather we have had lately. I was living in Texas in 2002 and missed this one, but I remember talking to family about how unusual it was. Of course, it was easy to sit in the warm Texas weather and feel sympathy for my chilly family.

    Great information — thanks!

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