It Sometimes Snows in San Diego
Our sunny city has seen a flake or two in its time.
In December of 1967, Bob Hurd was driving to work at SDG&E in Escondido when he saw something weird on Highway 395. There were “these kind of long white things hitting my windshield,” he recalled this week.
Odd. What the heck? “After a few minutes it dawned on me what was happening and I thought ‘It can’t be.’ By the time I got to work, the ground was covered.”
Hurd had just seen snow fall for the first time in his 24 years. Plenty of other San Diegans did too. It was a snow day for our fair city, one of only a handful in the past 160 years, and still fondly remembered by those who were there.
Will there be another snow day this weekend? A chilly storm is upon us and has already dumped 16 inches on Mt. Palomar. The U-T says it might even dust the highest parts of the city with a few flakes.
This got us to thinking: What’s the history of sunny San Diego and snow? Here are some questions and answers.
How often has it snowed in San Diego?
The San Diego County mountains get dustings of snow just about every winter — Mt. Laguna got an amazing eight feet over just eight days in 1967 — and snow has been known to fall in the inland valleys as recently as 2008. But flakes in the city proper are quite rare.
According to the National Weather Service, the first report of snow in San Diego came in January 1882. The snowflakes that didn’t stick to the ground, although there was an inch of snow in Poway and three inches in El Cajon.
Snow flurries struck the city in January 1937, February 1946, January 1949 (when the city got an official trace, its first since 1882), Christmas Eve 1987 and January 1990. Snowflakes were reported in February 1990, and snow dipped to the 1,000-foot level on Valentine’s Day two years ago.
But nothing compares with the 1967 snowfall, which came on Dec. 13. Carlsbad got two inches and Fallbrook got five. Conditions were so bad on Highway 395, the road that Hurd took from San Diego to get to work in Escondido, that chains were required just north of Mission Valley.
“Most Unusual Day in San Diego; Snow Falls; Some Schools Shut,” read the headline across the top of the front page in that day’s Evening Tribune. The next morning, The San Diego Union weighed in with “City Gets a Surprise — Wrapped in White.” (Another headline noted that “Peace, Goodwill Still Escape Man.”)
Our readers remember that day well:
• “My dad woke me up and said, ‘Hey, come out and look at this, you’ll never see this again,'” said Jim Means, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography graduate student who lived in Kearny Mesa and was about nine at the time. “I’ve seen a few flakes since then, but I seem to remember we might have had a half an inch on our fence. There were some places around the city where kids managed to sled.”
• “I was a sophomore at USD College for Women, as it was called then, and remember how amazing it was to look out the dorm and classroom windows and watch snow falling,” recalled Rosemary Johnston, executive director of the Interfaith Shelter Network of San Diego. “It was so out of the ordinary that I clearly remember that day.”
• John Niedstadt Sr., a local pollster, was attending Franklin Elementary in San Diego’s Kensington neighborhood. “I remember exactly where I was in the early morning as the few flakes fell. The curved walkway between the upper and lower portions of the school is still there, and as I walked along, I saw these little white things falling. As they hit the ground they melted, so there was no snowman building or snowball fights.”
It snows in other places in the Sun Belt, like Dallas and Atlanta. Why isn’t it more common here?
You can thank (or blame) the planet’s rotation. “If you could turn the earth around and spin it the other way, we’d be the ones who’d get snow and they’d stay warm,” said Means, a scientist who is studying climate science at Scripps.
In reality, weather tends to move from west to east as the earth rotates, meaning that places back east get storms that got to spend time getting chilly in the center of the country. Our storms, by contrast, typically get to spend time over the ocean, which doesn’t get as cold as land, Means said.
“The ocean has a big heat capacity. It’s hard to cool it down, and it’s never going to get anywhere near freezing,” he said. “In a storm like what we’ll get this weekend, it’s not primarily coming in from the west. Maybe the north and northeast. The air won’t be spending much time over the water and getting a chance to warm up.”
We’ve had snow in our past, along with severe heat (a San Diego high of 111 degrees in 1963) and cold (a record county low of -4 degrees at Cuyamaca in 1949), heavy rainstorms and high winds, fog, hail and even tornados. Is there any kind of weather that we can’t get in San Diego?
“I used to say hurricanes, but there’s evidence that there was a hurricane that hit San Diego in the 1850s,” said Edward Aguado, a geography professor and climatologist at San Diego State University. The 1858 hurricane — the only one to ever hit the West Coast — was estimated to be a Category 1; researchers discovered its existence a few years ago after examining newspaper reports from the time.
What about sleet or an ice storm? Could we get those too?
“Yeah, we could. Boy, would we be up a creek,” Aguado said. “People here can’t drive in the rain, and freezing rain is deceptive. It can look real nice and fine until you meet a slick spot on the road, and you’re dead meat.”
Great. Still, there’s gotta be some kind of weather we’re immune to.
“We wouldn’t get a severe tornado,” Aguado said. “You need extremely strong contrasts in temperature from one region to another, 40-50 degrees difference. We don’t get that.”