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July 5, 2020

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Was last February’s ‘snowmaggedon’ a fluke, or can we expect more like it? We took your snow questions to the experts.

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Maybe it’s because it’s always a novelty at first. Or maybe it’s because we just can’t handle it. Whatever the reason, Seattleites seem obsessed with those cold white flakes — and the beauty and transportation troubles they bring — whenever there’s so much as a whiff of snow in the forecast or days of warnings as we’ve just endured.

The second a snowflake showed up on peoples’ smartphone weather apps more than a week ago, the National Weather Service in Seattle got a deluge of messages from people wanting to know what to expect.

But it’s not that simple, weather service meteorologist Dana Felton said. Snow in the Puget Sound region requires cold air from the interior of North America to meet moisture from the Pacific Ocean in the right manner and place, which makes it hard to predict in detail very long in advance.

“The bottom line is that we can forecast out to seven days, and beyond that, it’s beyond science,” he said.

But that unpredictability might be part of the fascination.

When we recently asked readers for their most pressing weather questions, a significant portion of them were about snow — even questions submitted long before winter began.

To answer your most common questions, we looked at data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and spoke to Felton, weather service Meteorologist in Charge Logan Johnson and radio weatherman Ted Buehner.

The winter of 1968 or ’69 was very snowy. How does the snowfall that season, which paralyzed Seattle at the time, compare with last February’s nightmare?

While the snowstorms from February 2019 may have felt relentless at the time, that year had nothing on the winter of ’68 and ’69 — at least in terms of actual volume of snow.

NOAA data shows 67.5 inches recorded in 1968-’69, making it one of the snowiest winters since records started being kept at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1945. That’s roughly three times as much snow as the winter of 2018-’19, when 21 inches were recorded.

How much snow does Seattle typically get in a year? Has snow become more or less frequent and has that changed over time?

Buehner: I would say, over time, it has become less frequent. There are a lot of years we get nothing.

Felton: When the amount of snow we get is averaged out over years, we normally get 6-8 inches a year. That number is skewed by the really big snow years. We had a total of 21 inches last year, 1 inch in 2018, 13 in 2017, 1 in 2016, a trace in 2015 and just short of 4 inches in 2014.

Last year was the most snow since 1985, when we had 17.5 inches in November during the Ice Bowl between the Huskies and the Cougars.

Was last winter’s “snowmageddon” a fluke or, as one reader put it, “climate change in motion”? Should we expect more freak storms like that in the future?

Johnson: What we saw last winter could go in the “fluke” category, but the important thing is that [big snow events] are not unprecedented in the history of Seattle. They happen regularly every couple of decades. The interesting thing about last year’s snow is that it all fell in a two-week period. You can look back to the winters of 1968-’69, 1949-’50 and then 1915-’16, and there were 60 inches of snow those winters. Last year, [when] we had 21 inches, it seemed like a lot, but it was only a third of what we have seen in the snowiest winters. It could be another couple decades before one happens again, or it could be this year.

It’s hard to address whether it is climate change in action. There has certainly been variability over the years, but it is hard to say from our perspective whether it is natural variability or human variability. We can look back to anecdotal reports from the 1880s about some crazy snowstorms, but we will never truly know [how much snow there was then]. That doesn’t mean we should discount the possibility that the cycles are being changed.

Felton: I don’t think “fluke” is exactly the right word to use, but it was the most snow we’ve had in 34 years, and it was definitely something different.

Buehner: Probably not a fluke because they do happen periodically. And speaking of the right conditions for the right time, January is our peak month for snow. That means December can be snowy, February can be snowy, but January is when we get the most snow events.

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