The Most Memorable Snowstorms in Seattle History
Except, perhaps, lamenting the Sonics’ relocation, nothing brings Seattleites together quite like a snowstorm. Or the promise of one: “It’s like rooting for a sport team,” says Seattle Weather Blog founder Justin Shaw, the internet’s go-to source for meteorological color commentary.
Certainly, his Twitter mentions could be mistaken for an assembly of diehard fans crossing their fingers for a big win, bemoaning their losses, or urging their compatriots not to get their hopes up. Seattle snow forecasts can be fickle. In a normal December, Seattle accumulates a little less than two inches of snow; in a normal February, just one.
But we do get knock-down, drag-out, buy-out-the-PCC snowstorms: Snowpocalypse, Storm King, the kind people remember decades after the fact. And whether it’s the novelty, or the unnavigable hills, or the magic of all those snow-capped evergreen trees, we’ll never stop freaking out about them. “You could probably go as far as to say we’re one of the most snow-enthusiastic cities,” Shaw says. “We’re all kind of in this snow globe together.”
These are some of the storms Seattle will never forget.
January 1880: Storm King
Say one good word about the Pacific Northwest’s mild weather and prepare for a walloping. “Ice and snow are of rare occurrence and almost unknown in Western Washington,” reported territory governor Elisha Ferry—just before the region received over five feet of snow in 11 days, according to Paul Dorpat for HistoryLink. “There's no telling the depth of snow a few hours ahead,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer remarked, an early example of Seattle’s tough-to-predict weather patterns. “We tried it and wretchedly failed.”
January 13 “was a hands-in-the-pockets, hat-over-the-ears, turned-up-collar and rolled-up cuffs kind of night,” Lenny Anderson wrote for The Seattle Daily Times, “one which will be harked back to for many years to come.” The 20-inch onslaught holds the Sea-Tac record for the most snowfall in a single calendar day. That month, 57.2 inches fell and not a single day went by without snow on the ground. In the modern era, Shaw says, “nothing comes close.”
Locals turned out for the historic storm in true Seattle fashion: skiing at parks and golf courses, taking snow-capped skyline photos, and complaining to long-suffering bus drivers. “They got their problems, and they’re as cold as I am,” a rosy-cheeked transit system worker told The Seattle Daily Times that winter. “But the only thing is, I don’t know any more about what buses are running than they do.”
January 1968: Big Snow
New Year’s Eve of 1968 set a 24-hour snowfall record in Seattle proper, per The Seattle Times, with 10 inches falling downtown. It was a harbinger of the month to come: Just nine January days went without snow at Sea-Tac, and depth stayed at an inch or more for 23 of them. It brought out the worst in one Seattleite, who stole a set of chains right off another man’s tires, and the best in transit system employees, who worked 12-hour shifts building chains for area buses.
“January 1969 won’t replace January 1950 in the winter record books,” wrote Mary Elayne Dunphy for The Seattle Times, “but it will get a place next to it.”
What’s rarer than snow in Western Washington? A bona fide White Christmas. On December 18, 1990, what Shaw calls “the mother of all convergence zones” graced the city and its surrounds with a thunderstorm and seven inches of snow (by the time the storm got to Sea-Tac it had dwindled significantly). Freezing weather, and occasional flurries, persisted through Christmas Day.
There’s an eight-year gap in official Seattle snowfall record-keeping that started in 1996. “Terrible timing,” Shaw says—at the end of that year, Washington saw a storm that locals would use as a point of comparison for years to come. More than half of King County Metro’s fleet got stuck or taken out of service. The downtown Seattle Bon Marche made less than half of its expected sales on the day after Christmas. And some 14,000 Seattle City Light customers lost power.
With nearly a foot of snow on the ground, The Seattle Times reported, the city reveled anyway: “In Green Lake, there were so many skiers that the Starbucks Coffee cafe looked like a ski lodge.”
March 2002: Thunder Snow
“This one is forgotten, I think, by a lot of people,” Shaw says. “Not myself.” A particularly chilly March—the first day of spring clocked a high of just 36 degrees—combined with a convergence zone that “went right through the heart of the city” greeted Seattleites not just with snow and hail, but with thunder and lightning, too.
It was idyllic even so. Streets became a time-shifted scene from a holiday movie, with sledders and snowball-fighters playing late into the evening. “Northwest children know instinctively they wait until tomorrow to revel in the snowflakes at their peril,” The Seattle Times wrote. “Those who ventured out seemed to know storms like this do not come around often and do not last long.”
“During the storm, people wanted to throw the mayor under the bus,” wrote Seattle P.I. columnist Robert L. Jamieson, Jr. “If only buses were running!” Several inches of snow accumulated in Seattle in the days leading up to Christmas 2008, and “the city was just paralyzed,” Shaw says: hundreds of flights canceled, bus lines out of service. The effects were felt for weeks.
Still, Mayor Greg Nickels publicly gave the city a generous “B” grade for its response to the storm—riling up criticism from columnists and council members, reports that Department of Transportation employees prioritized his neighborhood for plowing, and more than a flurry of resentment from citizens holed up at home.
SDOT unveiled a new snow readiness plan in 2009, reversing the environmentally focused anti-salt stance some blamed for the debacle. “The changes may save Seattle during the next storm,” the Seattle P.I. opined, “but they're too late to spare Mayor Greg Nickels’ job.” He was decisively booted in the primary that year.
February 2019: Snowpocalypse
Seattle's first snowstorm experienced largely on social media earned a few widely used monikers—Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, anything to capture the frantic mood of a city crashing down icy hills and stocking up on organics like the end of the world was nigh. Sea-Tac Airport registered 20.2 inches, making it the snowiest February on record.
In a Seattle grocery, and someone just walked up behind me and in a saddened whisper posed to no one in particular, “Bread is gone?” #snowpocalypse pic.twitter.com/n1S1pFati5— Alexandra Matthiesen (@AMatthiesen) February 8, 2019
But like so many storms before it, Snow-2K showed Seattle's warmer side, too, as evidenced by sweet, reader-submitted stories collected by The Seattle Times. Patrick Coyle of North Beach sums up the experience best: "Who needs plows when you have good neighbors?" (Hey, SDOT. We do need plows. But still.)