Snowstorms in the South: An Historical Perspective
Snowstorms in the Southeast and Deep South of the United States: An Historical Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia was amazed recently when 4-6” of snow (and ice) accumulated this past Sunday and Monday. Furthermore, snow fell on Christmas Day (officially 1.4”) in the Atlanta area as well. So how unusual is this? Of course, it is unusual but not close to record-breaking snowfall anywhere in the Southeast. Huntsville, Alabama recorded 8.9” and this was their 3rd heaviest accumulation on record but still a long way from the all-time record of 17.1” set on New Years Eve 1963-1964. Atlanta’s official 4.4” accumulation is also distant from their record of 11.2” set on January 7, 1940.
The Greatest Southeastern Snowstorms on Record
The following is a summary of the all-time greatest snowstorms to have been observed in the Gulf and Deep South Region.
JANUARY 9-11, 1800: Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina
The single greatest snow accumulations ever reported from Florida to coastal Georgia and coastal South Carolina occurred on January 9-11 some 211 years ago in 1800. A survey party demarcating the border between Florida and Georgia was encamped at the mouth of St. Mary’s River near where Ft. Clinch State Park is now just north of the current site of Jacksonville, Florida. They reported heavy snow most of the day and night of January 10th and awoke to 5” of snow cover. More may have actually fallen and melted prior to sunrise on the 11th when they made their observation. In and around Savannah, Georgia 18” of snow fell with drifts up to 3-feet. Here the snow fell continuously for a 36-hour period from late evening January 9th until early morning January 11th. In Charleston, South Carolina, the State Gazette reported 8” of snow on level with severe drifting and gales. It would appear that Charleston was on the northern edge of the heaviest accumulations which were centered around Savannah. (For more about this event see Early American Winters: 1604-1820 pp. 159-160, by David M. Ludlum, American Meteorological Society, Boston, 1966).
In modern records the heaviest snowfalls have been the following for these locations: Jacksonville, Florida: 1.9” (February 12-13, 1899), Savannah, Georgia: 3.6” December 8, 1989; Charleston, South Carolina: 7.1” February 9-10, 1973.
DECEMBER 3-6, 1886: Southern Appalachians
An early season heavy wet snowstorm hammered all of Alabama and the higher elevations of Georgia and North Carolina December 3-6, 1886 with 12-16” of snowfall in central Alabama (Montgomery had a record 11.0”), 17-20” in the northern parts of Alabama, and up to 25” in northern Georgia (as was measured in Rome). But it was in the mountains of North Carolina that the most extraordinary accumulations were reported with 36-42” at places like Hot House, North Carolina and Ducktown, Tennessee. Asheville, North Carolina reported 33” of snow on level, almost double the amount from the famous ‘Superstorm’ of 1993.
FEBRUARY 14-16, 1895: Coastal Texas to Alabama
A coastal low in the Gulf of Mexico developed near Texas on February 14, 1895 and spread a mantle of deep snow from the coastal areas of northern Mexico to Florida over the following two days. Snowflakes were reported in Tampico, Mexico (the furthest south snow has ever been recorded at a coastal location in the Western Hemisphere: 22°18’N). Brownsville, Texas measured 3-6” and the accumulations became even more fantastic further up the coast: Galveston had 15.4”, Houston 20.0”, and Lake Charles, Louisiana 22.0”. A peak accumulation of 24” was measured at Rayne in southeast Louisiana, a state record. These amounts were actually ground depth measurements, so more may have actually fallen. New Orleans registered its greatest snowfall on record with an 8.2” as did Pensacola, Florida with 3.0”. A state record for Mississippi was set at Batesville with 20.0”.
New Orleans experienced its only true blizzard on February 12, 1899. Although only 3.8” of snow fell (compared to the 8.2” in 1895) the temperature fell from the mid-20°s to low teens during the snowfall (with strong winds) and then down to an all-time low of 6.8°F by the morning of February 13th. (photo from Historic New Orleans Collection).
DECEMBER 31, 1963-JANUARY 1, 1964: Mississippi and Alabama
Another record-breaking snow of note includes this event that still holds the following all-time snowfall records: Huntsville, Alabama 17.1”; Florence, Alabama 19.2”; Meridian, Mississippi 15.0”.
FEBRUARY 9-10, 1973: Piedmont of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina
No snowstorm in the old or modern records can match that that struck the Piedmont regions of Georgia and South Carolina in February 1973. Macon, Georgia received 16.5” of snowfall and Augusta and Columbus both reported 14.0” (all-time records). Even Albany received its all-time accumulation of 3.0”. In South Carolina an all-time state record was achieved at Rimini with 24” and Columbia (16”) and Florence (17”) also set their respective all-time records for both a single snowstorm and a 24-hour accumulation.
This graphic shows the track of the surface low (solid line) and track of the 850mb low (dashed line) along with snow accumulation amounts during the storm of February 9-10, 1973. Peak snowfall was in central South Carolina with 24” at Rimini. (graphic from Weatherwise Magazine Vol. 27 p. 193, October, 1974).
MARCH 12-14, 1993: All of the interior Southeast
No summary of southern snowfall records would be complete without mention of the so-called ‘Superstorm’ or ‘Storm of the Century’. Among the notable all-time snowfall records achieved during this event are the state records for 24-hour snowfall in Georgia, 24.0” at Mountain City (modern record, see 1886); as well as Tennessee: 30.0” on Mt. LeConte, and also North Carolina: 36.0” on Mt. Mitchell. Mt. LeConte also reported an amazing Tennessee state record for a single-greatest storm total with 60.0” over the course of three days March 12-14. For the lower elevations all-time snowfall records were set at Birmingham, Alabama: 13.0” and Asheville, North Carolina: 16.5” (only a modern record, see storm of 1886 above).
One of the most famous weather maps of all time: the surface analysis for March 13, 1993 at 7 a.m. EST. (map from NOAA).
A Special Note About Snow in Florida
Aside from the snow event of 1800 readers might be curious as to what the modern snowfall records are for Florida. The greatest ‘statewide’ snowfall occurred during the famous East Coast blizzard and cold wave of February 1899 (the same event that brought sub-zero temperatures to Florida for the first and only time). On February 13th, 1899 snow flakes were observed as far south as Fort Meyers and a general 1”+ accumulation occurred statewide north of Gainesville. Jacksonville recorded its greatest modern accumulation of 1.9”, 2.1” was measured at Pensacola, and up to 6” was anecdotally reported near the Georgia border in northwest Florida. The highest official amount was 3.5” at Haywood.
The furthest south snow flakes have been reported is at Homestead (south of Miami 25° 18’ N) on January 19, 1977. The deepest snowfall officially measured in the state is 4.0” at Milton Experimental Station in the NW corner on March 6, 1954.