The snowiest place in each state
Winter is fast approaching in the United States, and the strengthening El Nino is driving expectations of a cool winter in the South and a relatively warm one for the North. But who will get the most snow this winter?
Snowfall forecasting even on short-time scales is among the more perplexing challenges for meteorologists. So it would be a fool's errand to try to predict specific snowfall amounts for this winter.
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However, some places are perennial snow magnets, and there are good reasons for that.
There are three basic ingredients required to get snow to fall: the air needs to be moist, it needs to be below freezing from cloud level most of the way to the ground, and the air needs to rise in order to turn moisture into snowflakes.
Being close to large bodies of water helps secure moist air, but there are very snowy places far from any oceans or large lakes. The snowiest places are the ones that consistently get cold, rising air. Northerly latitude and high elevation are key to being cold enough for frequent snow, and being near a steep change in elevation brings more rising air motions and therefore more opportunities for snowfall.
We tallied snowfall totals for the past 30 years – July 1, 1985, through June 30, 2015 – for every location in NOAA's official climate database, looking for the top total in each state. After inspecting each state's winner for any missing or otherwise erroneous data, here's what we came up with.
Not surprisingly, the snowiest place in New England is the spot that brands itself the "Home of the World's Worst Weather," the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire.
See the snow that was still left over in May from Boston's 2014 winter:
Sitting atop the highest peak in the Northeast at 6,271 feet above sea level (17 feet below the mountain's summit), the Observatory measured a total of 8,463.9 inches (21,498 centimeters) of snow over the past 30 winters. That's an average of 282.1 inches (716.7 cm) annually.
Outside of New England, the snowiest place in the Northeast is Highmarket, New York.
Highmarket is situated on the Tug Hill, a sparsely populated expanse of higher land east of Lake Ontario. When cold westerly winds blow across the long east-west axis of Lake Ontario, they can pick up tremendous amounts of moisture from the lake. Upon reaching the Tug Hill, the sudden rise in terrain forces that air to rise, causing tremendously heavy lake-effect snow.
Highmarket reported 6,427.1 inches (16,325 cm) of snowfall in the past 30 winters, for an annual average of 214.2 inches (544.2 cm). However, in some seasons, communities on the Tug Hill have recorded seasonal totals exceeding 400 inches (about 1,000 cm).
Lake-effect snow is also to credit for Pennsylvania's snowiest location, Erie, and lake-effect moisture is also a big factor in bringing snow to the mountains of western Maryland.
The Southeast is not well-known for snow, but the central and southern reaches of the Appalachians are snowy enough to host several well-known ski resorts.
The region also hosts the highest peak in the entire Appalachian mountain chain, Mount Mitchell. That peak is also the snowiest place in North Carolina, picking up an average of 90.6 inches (230.2 cm) of snow annually.
If one includes West Virginia as part of the Southeast, as we have done here, then the snowiest spot in the Southeast belongs to Terra Alta, West Virginia. Taking its name from the Latin phrase meaning "high land," it sits in the mountainous northeastern part of the state at an elevation of 2,630 feet.
Terra Alta is in a sweet spot primed for heavy snow from East Coast storms (including 36 inches from Superstorm Sandy) as well as frequent snowfall from residual lake-effect moisture streaming south from Lake Huron and Lake Erie. In all, Terra Alta has recorded 5,212 inches (13,238 cm) of snow in the past 30 winters, averaging 175.0 inches (444.5 cm) during the 29 winters with complete data.
You may be looking at Florida and wondering why there are two locations plotted.
The reason is that the site with the highest cumulative snow total in the past 30 years did it with just one snow day – Live Oak, Florida, picked up 3.0 inches of snow on Dec. 23, 1989, and that's more snow than any other location in Florida in the entire 30-year period combined. In fact, only one site in the entire state – Jacksonville International Airport – had measurable snow from two separate events in the 30-year span, with 0.8 inches in the December 1989 storm and 0.5 inch on March 1, 1986, for a total of 1.3 inches.
So, we expanded the search to 60 years hoping to find more than just a flukish event. Doing so unveiled the Milton Experimental Station outside Milton, Florida. It's already the state recordholder for a single snowstorm and for snow depth, thanks to a March 1954 storm. Even though that was before the July 1955 cutoff date, Milton was still the snowiest place in Florida over the past 60 winters, racking up 10.3 inches of snow over six decades – and that rounds up to a beefy 0.2 inch (0.4 cm) per year.
If you are at all familiar with Midwest winters, it won't surprise you to learn that the snowiest place in the Midwest is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Cold northwest winds blowing across Lake Superior lead to frequent lake-effect snows across the Upper Peninsula, depositing a reliable snow cover there every winter. The region's largest city and primary weather observation site, Marquette, attracts most of the attention during such events. But it's the unincorporated hamlet of Herman, Michigan, in neighboring Baraga County that tops the leaderboard, at least over the past 30 winters.
Herman tallied 6,419.8 inches (16,306 cm) of snowfall from mid-1985 to mid-2015, an average of 214.0 inches (543.5 cm) annually. That's even higher than the widely-quoted official average of 203.3 inches (516.4 cm) per year at the Marquette National Weather Service office in Negaunee, Michigan.
Lake-effect snow also plays a role in the other three Great Lakes states. Lake Erie helps push Chardon, Ohio, to the top of the heap in that state, while South Bend leads Indiana. When lake-effect snow hits Chicago it's more apt to hit the south side, putting the snow crown in the hands of Frank Wachowski, the longtime cooperative observer who measures snowfall 3 miles southwest of Midway Airport in Chicago.
See more photos of last year's snowfall:
Outside of the Great Lakes states, the city of Lead, South Dakota sticks out like a sore thumb, as do the surrounding Black Hills amidst the topography of the High Plains. With the state 24-hour record snowfall (52 inches, or 132 cm), the state record snow depth (73 inches, or 185 cm) and the highest annual snowfall anywhere in the Plains states over the past 30 years (195.9 inches, or 497.6 cm), it's no surprise they pronounce "Lead" like the first syllable of "leader."
Southwest and Southern Plains
Heavy snowfall is not unheard of in the Southern Plains, but it isn't very common. Many winters go by without any snow at all across a large part of Texas and Louisiana.
As a result, the annual average snowfall of 0.8 inch (2.1 cm) in Shreveport is enough to make that city the snowiest place in Louisiana over the past 30 years.
The highest totals in the Southern Plains are found in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, thanks to their northerly latitude and relatively high elevations between 3,600 and 4,200 feet above sea level.
With their high mountains and plateaus, New Mexico and Arizona do far better in the snowfall department despite being mostly in desert and semi-arid zones.
Red River, New Mexico, is the snowiest place in those two states. Located a stone's throw from Taos in the mountains of north-central New Mexico, Red River reported 4,120.5 inches (10,466 cm) of snow over the past 30 years, despite incomplete data from late 2007 through early 2010. Factoring out those three winters with incomplete data, Red River averaged 151.1 inches (383.7 cm) of snow over the past three decades.
The most disruptive American snowstorms tend to be the ones that strike east of the Rockies, simply due to the population and infrastructure affected. However, when it comes to the actual amount of snow, it's hard to outdo the snowiest places in the West.
Leading the list is Paradise Ranger Station at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, located almost 9,000 feet below the 14,411-foot summit of Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Cascade Range.
With frequent winter storms bringing westerly winds laden with Pacific moisture directly into the sudden elevation rise of the north-south Cascades, the setup couldn't be more perfect for heavy snow. Paradise Ranger Station saw a total of 19,050.2 inches (48,388 cm) of snowfall over the past 30 years – a mind-boggling total, but probably still undercounted given several months of missing data in 1987-88 and three winters in the mid 1990s.
Excluding those four winters with incomplete data, the annual average snowfall for the past three decades comes out to 645.5 inches (1,639.5 cm) at Paradise Ranger Station – making it by far the snowiest place in the United States, and one of the snowiest places in the world.
Another site in the Cascades, the headquarters at Crater Lake National Park, puts Oregon in third place among the 50 states with an annual average of 453.4 inches (1,151.5 cm).
Second place goes to Alta, Utah, with an average of 456.9 inches (1,160.6 cm) over the past three decades. At 8,730 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains, the town of Alta is the snowiest incorporated place in the U.S.
Alaska and Hawaii
While Alta, Utah, is the snowiest incorporated place in the U.S., the snowiest incorporated city in the U.S. is Valdez, Alaska.
Unlike most of the snowy places on our list, Valdez at a very low elevation of 95 feet (29 meters) above sea level, right next to the Gulf of Alaska.
The frequent winter storms that form over the Gulf of Alaska send moist Pacific air crashing into the high mountains just inland from Valdez, putting the city in the crosshairs of epic snowfall – sometimes burying houses in towering mounds of snow.
Even though data for the past four winters are missing or incomplete, the National Weather Service office at Valdez recorded more snow from July 1985 through June 2015 than any other location in Alaska – 8,703.0 inches (22,106 cm). Factoring out three winters with missing or incomplete data, that comes out to 314.1 inches (797.7 cm) of snow per year.
As we've reported several times this year, Hawaii does get snow at its three highest summits – Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Haleakala. However, even though there are NOAA-sanctioned observation sites near these summits, most of their observations are limited to liquid-equivalent precipitation. As a result, there are no official snowfall totals for Hawaii in NOAA's database.
Needless to say, by any measure the most snowfall in Hawaii this winter will be on one of those summits.
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