Early Season Snowfalls

By: Christopher C. Burt , 6:16 PM GMT on November 03, 2010

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October is normally the month that the first measurable snowfalls of the winter season fall in the Northern Plains, Rocky Mountains, Cascades of the Pacific Northwest (above about 4000 feet), and the Sierra Nevada of California (above about 6000 feet). On occasion, snow also falls in the Northeast and Appalachians at higher elevations.


Figure 1. A record early snowfall blanketed much of Nebraska on Oct. 9-10, 2009 with North Platte receiving 13.8". (photo credit: Mike Hollingshead/extremeinstability.com)

On some occasions, October snow may fall at sea level in New England, and has been reported in the past as far south as the tidewaters of Virginia, and Oklahoma in the Central Plains. Below are a list of the earliest dates of measurable snowfall at selected sites in the U.S.A. since the beginning of their official records, and a list of some all-time snow records that were set in October and still stand today:



As of Nov. 1, 2010 the only cities from the list above that have already recorded measurable snowfall so far this season are Great Falls, MT (on Sept. 17), Salt Lake city, UT (on Oct. 25), and Bismarck, ND (on Oct. 26). Please note that I would be happy to research the first measurable snowfalls on record for any city you might be interested in. However, the caveat is that your requests are for first order NWS sites. Please feel free to email me your requests.



International Early-season Snowfall Records
European and all other international snowfall records aside from the USA and Canada are mostly non-existent. This is because they only consider melted precipitation for their databases. Nonetheless, British weather historian Paul Simons informs me that London's earliest measured snowfall was on Oct. 7, 1829 when a "widespread" snowstorm struck Southeast England with a "considerable amount" of accumulation.

Some Historic Early Season Snowstorms

New England's Snow Hurricane of Oct. 9, 1804
Perhaps the most extraordinary early-season snowstorm in New England history occurred on Oct. 9, 1804 when a hurricane roared ashore on Long Island, New York and then encountered an arctic air mass over southeastern Canada. The winds of the hurricane caused extensive structural damage from New York to Massachusetts (where the steeple of North Church in Boston was blown down). The rain turned to snow as far south as the Connecticut River Valley in Connecticut, where low elevation towns from here to the Canadian border received 4-6" of snow, and the higher terrain of Vermont up to three feet of accumulation. In Vermont, drifts buried fences and blocked roads. The Catskills of New York reported 12-18"; the Berkshires of Massachusetts received 24-30". Even coastal New Haven reported some snow (and 3.66" of rain). Reference: "Early American Winters: 1604-1820", by David M. Ludlum, American Meteorological Society, 1966, and "Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870", by the same author

Buffalo, New York Oct. 12-13, 2006
The Great Lakes snow belts often report their heaviest snowstorms early in the winter season when the lakes are still warm and the first arctic outbreaks blow in from Canada. However, nothing can compare to the amazing snow squall that hit a narrow area over Buffalo, New York on Oct. 12-13, 2006. An official 22.6" of snow fell at the Buffalo Airport NWS station (higher amounts of 24" fell at Depew and Alden).



The heaviest previous snowfall during the first half of October had been just 1.6" on Oct. 10, 1906. Lake Erie's water temperature was 62°F (almost warm enough to swim in!) The air became just cold enough for rain showers to turn to snow at 3pm on Oct. 12, and by that night, cloud tops reached 25-30,000' (exceptionally high for lake-effect storms), and lightning and thunder was observed all night. For a detailed analysis of this storm see http://www.erh.noaa.gov/buf/storm101206.html.

Denver, Colorado Sep. 3-4, 1961
September snowstorms are relatively common along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies but normally occur during the waning days of the month. Not so during the famous Labor Day snowstorm of 1961, which buried Denver and the foothills under the heaviest early-season snowfall on record. An official 4.2" was measured on Sep. 3 at Stapleton Airport and up to 12" fell in the western foothills of the city. Denver's most intense September snowfall occurred Sept. 26-28, 1936 when 16.5" accumulated in the city.

Minnesota Oct.31-Nov.2, 1991
The famous Halloween blizzard of 1991 was not only Minneapolis and Duluth's heaviest, earliest snowstorm on record, but also their greatest single snowstorm for any month in their respective histories. Minneapolis received a storm total of 28.4" and Duluth 36.9".

Unlike most early-season snowfalls, this one was a true blizzard accompanied by high winds and followed by record low temperatures, with the -3°F in Minneapolis on Nov. 4th being their earliest below zero temperature on record. Coincidentally, while this "perfect blizzard" raged in the Midwest, the more famous "Perfect Storm" was raging over the North Atlantic and New England. For more details about the storm see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween_Blizzard



Conclusion
I am not aware of any scholarly research on the subject of first measurable snowfalls of the season in the United States. If I had spent months researching whether or not measurable snowfalls were occurring later or earlier over the period of record, then perhaps there would be some "conclusion" of note here. Sorry, that is not the case! I'm afraid this blog has nothing of such importance to relate, it is simply an early season notice to all you snow lovers out there. Living in Oakland, California for twenty years I still dream of the day that any measurable snow falls here!

Christopher C. Burt

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11. SteveRose
11:34 PM GMT on April 23, 2012
I can't recall the exact date of this snowstorm or even the exact year. It occurred in early October in the early 1970's when I was living in Mt. Freedom, NJ, part of the Kittatinny Mountains (Randolph Twp., NJ) attending high school and at the time recording the daily weather in a personal weather log. Mt. Freedom, NJ is about 55 miles west of New York City at an elevation close to 1,000' above sea level. I recall about 6" of heavy wet snow on the green maple tree leaves that were barely beginning to turn color, with lots of branches down due to the weight on the leaves. It likely was a snow event that only occurred at the highest elevations of Morris County, NJ. Hard to say whether this was a local event only or occurred over multiple East coast states up the Appalachian chain.
Member Since: April 8, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 6
10. sleepysentry
6:11 PM GMT on November 09, 2010
Looks like it's time to haul out ye' old snowblower. It's nice to see a change of weather in the Buffalo area, honestly. My guess is just like every year, we'll all be wishing the snow away in about a month. Once we have about two feet of it on our heads, at least.
Member Since: November 22, 2007 Posts: 4 Comments: 33
8. jerseycityjoan
6:37 AM GMT on November 07, 2010
What an interesting topic. Thanks for the fascinating information.

Why are we and Canada the only countries to record snowfall? That seems amazing to me. Does anyone have any idea?
Member Since: September 29, 2001 Posts: 0 Comments: 177
7. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
1:34 AM GMT on November 05, 2010
Quoting Mattinvt:
You can't possibly highlight all the memorable early season snows, but
I could add one more to your list. Western New England and eastern New
York had a phenomenal storm on Oct. 4, 1987. As I recall, 18 inches
fell near Bennington, Vt. 5-12" totals covered a large chunk of Vermont
and around the Capital District of New York.
It was peak fall
foliage, and the snow accumulated on leaves, breaking thousands of
trees, which collapsed across roads and power lines. Leaf peeper
tourists were stranded in inns with no electricity. Quite a scene.


I remeber this event well since I happened to be in Boston to catch a flight to Frankfurt that day and believe it snowed a bit at Logan Airport but, I guess, not a measureable amount--however, I think downtown and certainly the western suburbs did record some accumulation.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 312 Comments: 293
4. Zachary Labe
7:13 PM GMT on November 04, 2010
Great blog!
Member Since: December 14, 2007 Posts: 284 Comments: 15112
3. Mattinvt
6:54 PM GMT on November 04, 2010
You can't possibly highlight all the memorable early season snows, but I could add one more to your list. Western New England and eastern New York had a phenomenal storm on Oct. 4, 1987. As I recall, 18 inches fell near Bennington, Vt. 5-12" totals covered a large chunk of Vermont and around the Capital District of New York.
It was peak fall foliage, and the snow accumulated on leaves, breaking thousands of trees, which collapsed across roads and power lines. Leaf peeper tourists were stranded in inns with no electricity. Quite a scene.
Member Since: November 4, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
2. Neapolitan
9:42 AM GMT on November 04, 2010
Excellent post. I had previously read that NOAA article on the 2006 Buffalo event. Simply amazing: lake effect cloudtops to 25,000 feet, extra heavy/wet snow (6:1 snow/water), incessant lightning. Wish I could have been there as witness. I lived in the Mountain West for some years and saw my fair share of snow lightning, but it was only sporadic bolts, never anything close to nonstop.

Again, great post. Thanks for writing it.
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13611
1. nocaneindy
10:24 PM GMT on November 03, 2010
I can't imagine going 20 years without snow, I have a bad enough time going from March/April to November or so without it! Thanks for the post!
Member Since: September 21, 2007 Posts: 34 Comments: 515

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.