Whatever else doesn’t happen the rest of this non-winter, it has a zero percent chance of being the most snowless on record.
That distinction belongs in perpetuity to the winter of 1972-73, safely in the climatological clubhouse at a “trace” — officially, no measurable snow recorded. That’s 78.7 inches less than fell during the record winter of 2009-10.
The 0.3 inches measured so far this season is mightily unimpressive, but the best that 2019-20 can hope for is second place, just ahead of the 0.8 inches of 1997-98. The long-term average is about 22 inches.
Worldwide warming might well be a factor in the lack of snow and overall warmth this winter around here; the 48 contiguous United States just had their fifth-warmest January on record.
The atmosphere in recent years has acted like it’s under the influence of controlled substances at times. At the end of 2018, Philadelphia had experienced its warmest 10-year period on record — and it also was the snowiest.
But it would be impossible to tease out precisely how global temperatures would affect an individual season in a given area. Snow hasn’t even correlated all that well with temperatures.
The long-term record would suggest that, if anything, annual snowfall in Philadelphia is under the purview of the Pennsylvania Lottery groundhog as opposed to Punxsutawney Phil. The annual winter average snowfall for the 10-year period ending with the winter of 2017-18 was 31.9 inches; for the period ending with the 1931-32 winter, 13.2, the lowest on record.
Will snow make up for lost opportunities in March? Not necessarily. Snow has stayed away in consecutive winters. Some years it’s somebody else’s turn. It’s been quite cold in Alaska — January temperatures were better than 10 degrees below normal in Anchorage — and eventful in parts of Israel. On Tuesday Baghdad experienced a rare snowfall.
In Philly, for snow-lovers, this has been almost as bad as it gets. Almost. A harbinger? Maybe. Definitely an echo. Here is a bottom-feeder list of the most snowless winters:
1888-89, 6.2 inches: “The only opponents of a mild winter are plumbers, icemen, and those who care more about their prejudices than for any acknowledged scientific fact,” a government forecaster told The Inquirer back then. The following winter would have been even worse for those plumbers and icemen. It was the second warmest on record, with just 7.4 inches of snow.
1958-59, 5.1 inches: The snowiest winter in 40 years was followed by a snow dud. As for the snow-temperature correlation, that winter was one of the top 25 coldest, but also was quite dry.
1991-92, 4.7 inches: During a winter influenced by El Niño, an abnormal warming of surface waters in the tropical Pacific that affected the winter in North America, the entire country was warm. The government reported that among 100 stations, only Caribou, Maine, finished the season with below-normal temperatures.
1950-51, 4.6 inches: It wasn’t all that warm, but for a second-consecutive year (see 1949-50 below) snow stiffed Philly in a decade that featured three seasons with under 10 inches. But December 1950 marked a seminal moment in the history of snow deprivation. A team of entrepreneurs in New England managed to make their own snow with a machine.
1918-19, 4.5 inches: World War I had ended and Philadelphia didn’t have to do much snow-fighting in the streets. Although the winter was quite mild and not ideal for natural ice production, an Inquirer article promised that plenty of ice would be available during the summer “at last year’s prices.”
1930-31, 4.1 inches: The 1930s became legendary for their extremes in all directions. This was in the heart of three consecutive winters with snow in single figures. The grand total for all three, 20 inches, was less than the seasonal normal for one winter. Speaking of extremes, Philadelphia’s all-time low temperature, 11 below zero, was recorded in February 1934.
2011-12, 4.0 inches: This was the fifth-warmest winter on record in Philadelphia. It wasn’t El Niño’s fault: The tropical Pacific waters were slightly cooler than normal.
2001-02, 4.0 inches: And this one was No. 4 on the hot list, behind only 2016, 1890, and 1932. Once again, El Niño had an alibi: The Pacific waters again were cooler than normal.
1949-50, 1.9 inches: See above. That snow-making idea, by the way, did catch on.
1997-98, 0.8 inches: A record El Niño, an extreme warming of surface waters in the tropical Pacific, flooded North America with warm air. Snow avoided Philadelphia despite a sequence of potent nor’easters.