Anyone who’s ever lived in a chilly climate knows snowstorms well. Sometimes the weather forecast gives ample warning, but other times these storms catch us by surprise. Plows struggle to keep roads clear, schools are closed, events are canceled, flights are delayed and everyone gets sore backs from all the shoveling and snowblowing.
But there are those rare snowstorms that exceed all forecasts, break all records and cause mass devastation (even if it’s devastation that will melt in a few days or weeks). These storms are the worst of the worst, weather events that seem more like elemental blasts of pure winter rather than a simple combination of wind, temperature and precipitation.
Defining the 10 “biggest” snowstorms can be a tricky task. For instance, a blizzard that would bring New York to a screeching standstill might have school children in Moscow heading out to school wearing an extra pair of socks. Also, much of recorded history involved people telling their grandchildren, “You think this blizzard is bad? You should have seen the one that trapped us in our cabin the winter I turned 11.”
That being said, there are a few metrics we can use to assess the severity of a snowstorm, and it’s not just volume of snow. The Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS), created in 2004 to characterize snowstorms as the Fujita Scale rates tornadoes and the Saffir-Simpson Scale classifies hurricanes, takes in account a variety of factors and generates a single number that signifies a storm’s severity, usually on a scale from one to 10 — and sometimes higher [source: Science Daily].
The NESIS takes into consideration that sometimes the worst storms involve relatively modest snowfalls whipped into zero-visibility by hurricane-force winds. Some storms are worse than others because they impact major urban areas, or are so widespread that they affect several major urban areas. Timing can play a role as well — a storm during weekday rush hour is worse than one on a Saturday morning, and a freak early storm when leaves are still on the trees can cause enormous amounts of damage. With those factors in mind, here is our list of the biggest snowstorms of all time, in no particular order.
This snowstorm was so massive it became a historical event. In terms of storm severity factors, this one had it all: enormous amounts of snow, frigid temperatures, howling winds whipping up monstrous snow drifts — and a widespread area of effect that covered the entire northeastern United States from New England to the Chesapeake Bay, including major metropolitan areas like New York City [source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. More than 400 people died during the storm, including more than 100 who were lost at sea.
The storm struck in early March and started out as a serious rainstorm. From Sunday night to Monday morning, the temperature plummeted and the rain turned to snow. In the end, New York City received 22 inches (56 centimeters) of snow, shutting the city down and causing floods when the snow melted. Other places received much more: 58 inches (1.5 meters) of snow in Saratoga Springs, New York, and 45 inches (1.14 meters) in New Haven, Connecticut. Snow drifts as high as 50 or 60 feet (15.2 to 18.3 meters) were reported on Long Island, and wind gusts were reported as fast as 80 mph (128.7 kph).
In 1993, an early March storm surged up the east coast of the United States, unleashing snow and wind on a wider area than any other storm in recorded history. Massive snowfalls were recorded from eastern Canada to Alabama. Parts of 26 states were hit; roughly half of the entire U.S. population was affected, including many large cities [source: NOAA]. Two hundred and seventy Americans died. This storm is often compared to the Blizzard of 1888 — in many areas, it wasn’t as severe and didn’t drop as much snow, but it covered a much larger area.
This storm broke numerous weather records. A low temperature of minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 24.4 degrees Celsius) was recorded at Burlington, Vermont, while even Daytona Beach, Florida, felt the effects, with a low of 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 0.56 degrees Celsius). Birmingham, Ala., received more than a foot of snow (30.5 centimeters), with four inches (10.2 centimeters) falling as far south as Atlanta, Georgia. Snowfall totals were amplified farther north — Syracuse, New York got more than 40 inches (1.02 meters), for example. Mountainous areas in the Appalachians and Catskills got the most snow, with recorded totals of 50 inches (1.27 meters) or more. Wind speeds topped 70 mph (112.7 kph) in many places, and topped 100 mph (161 kph) in a few locations. Using storm surge and barometric pressure data, meteorologists say the Storm of the Century was the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane; it ranked a 13.2 on the NESIS scale.
This storm was relatively mild; it covered a smaller area than other major snow storms and didn’t have high winds. In fact, it wasn’t technically a blizzard at all, since the scientific definition of a blizzard requires sustained wind speeds above 35 mph (56.3 kph) and visibility under 500 feet (152.4 meters). But this storm is notable for the one place it did hit: New York City.
The weather station at New York’s Central Park Zoo recorded a total of 26.9 inches (68.3 centimeters) of snow from the storm. That total equals the greatest snowfall in New York City recorded history and breaks a record that had been set in 1947 [source: NOAA].
Tibet is known for some of the world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest. It gets bitterly cold there in the winter, but the climate is generally very arid. Some passes through the Himalayas remain passable throughout the year because of the low snowfall rates. For that reason, the snow storm that hit Lhunze County in October 2008 was a shock to its citizens.
Chinese officials reported an average snow depth of 59 inches (1.5 meters). Some villages experienced continuous snow for 36 hours, dropping five or six feet (1.52 or 1.83 meters) of snow on the ground [source: China Daily]. The amount of snow was so great that many buildings collapsed, resulting in seven deaths. Roads were closed for days as rescue crews fought to clear them and bring food to people trapped by the storm.
The economic effects of the storm were particularly harsh, as many locals were forced to slaughter or sell off large parts of their yak herds, or lost them entirely in the storm’s aftermath.
In 1959, a storm dumped a huge amount of snow on Mount Shasta, California. The 189 inches (4.8 meters) of snow recorded at the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl is the largest snowfall from a single storm in North America [source: NOAA]. However, many believe that 1993’s “Storm of the Century” has eclipsed this mark in terms of the actual volume of snow, due to heavy snowfall across such a massive area.
Oddly enough, the storm didn’t have much of an effect on locals. For one thing, residents of the Mount Shasta area were used to big snowstorms, so aside from some delays while they waited for plows to clear the wet, heavy snow, it didn’t affect them much. Also, the bulk of the snow fell away from the communities of Weed and Mount Shasta City, covering unpopulated mountainous areas. Few people at the time even noted that the town had broken the single storm snowfall record [source: College of the Siskiyous].
This March nor’easter (a powerful storm that blows in from the Atlantic Ocean) created classic blizzard conditions throughout eastern Canada, dumping a foot and a half (45.7 centimeters) of snow on Montreal and more than two feet (61 centimeters) elsewhere in the region. On top of the snowfall, the storm produced heavy winds that whipped the snow into the air and obliterated visibility. These conditions, combined with frigid temperatures, resulted in more than 20 fatalities.
Although many Canadians took the wintry blast in stride — residents of Cornwall, Ontario were encouraged to come to work despite the storm — this blizzard caused an event virtually unheard of in Canadian history: the cancellation of a Montreal Canadiens hockey game [source: Envirozine]. It was the first time that a game at the Montreal Forum had been postponed since the flu epidemic of 1918 [source: LCN].
The deadliest blizzard on record struck Iran in February 1972, killing over 4,000 people and flattening 200 villages. The storm, which lasted five days, unloaded up to 26 feet (8 meters) of snow in some areas on a region of northwestern, central and southern Iran, roughly the size of Greece.
The reasons so many people died are varied: the temperatures between punishing, almost daily snow events plummeted to around minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius), and people ran out of food and fresh water and heat, not to mention medical assistance during a banner year for the influenza virus. One village called Sheklab lost every single member of its population of 100 to the brutal storm.
The Great Snow was really a series of four storms that struck in quick succession in late February and early March of 1717. No one is quite sure how widespread the effects were, as record-keeping was spotty in colonial New England