The next time one of your elder friends or family members describes a snowfall from long ago that is suspiciously epic, you might be able to fact-check them. Or maybe you’ll just have to grin and bear it.
The National Weather Service provides a handy online database of weather history at stations all over the country (including the Inland Northwest), complete with temperature readings, precipitation levels and, yes, snow totals.
Alas, the records aren’t complete. Depending on the location, there are months, years and even full decades that have no readings. So your grandpa’s memories of braving 10-foot snow drifts during his walk to elementary school might get to live on.
The NWS records are the result of daily reports from weather observers, almost all of whom are volunteers. Since the dawn of the 20th century, volunteers have made measurements at bigger towns like Lewiston, Moscow and Pullman, and there have also been reporters in deep-woods communities like Elk River, Headquarters and Dixie.
But volunteers haven’t always been available, which explains the gaps in the archives. Lewiston’s records are more extensive than any town in the region, yet there is a stretch from 1996 to 2004 in which no snow readings were cataloged.
“It’s generally volunteers, and that’s why it’s kind of sporadic data,” said Laurie Nisbet, a meteorologist at the NWS office in Spokane.
Nisbet mentioned that Winchester had “an awesome observer” for 20 years named Tim Dorgan. But after Dorgan retired at the end of 2014, no one stepped into that role, and Winchester’s snow data has gone blank ever since.
The NWS does actively seek weather observers, but it also lucks out in certain areas.
“Sometimes it’s a family thing, especially in some of the more rural areas, like maybe it’s at a family farm,” Nisbet said. “(The readings) will be (taken) on the family farm, and when the parents get too old to do it, sometimes the children will take over and continue the observations for that area.”
Lewiston’s snow observer is Gary Groff, who is in his second year of taking readings. When it snows, he measures once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and sends the NWS those marks. If there’s a “big snow event,” he tries to report on an almost hourly basis.
It’s normally a mundane task, but when a significant snowstorm hits the area, Groff senses there’s heightened fascination in the statistics he reports.
“It’s kind of like fishing,” he said. “If the fishing is really good, everyone is interested. If you’re only catching one a day, nobody is interested.”
The most significant event of Groff’s tenure came Dec. 30, when Lewiston set a record for the day with 7.2 inches of snow. The town’s snow accumulation for the month was 11.5 inches, making it the seventh-biggest December total in the NWS archives.
Many other observations can be made in the NWS archives, including:
Lewiston’s snowiest winter came in 1915-16, when there was a total of 55.3 inches. But that pales in comparison to the record winters for Grangeville (82 inches in 1968-69), Moscow (109.7 in 1968-69), Pierce (260.5 in 1971-72) and Dixie (a whopping 343.6 inches, or about 28 feet, in 1971-72).
Lewiston’s biggest one-day snow total was 11 inches on Feb. 2, 1916. That’s a lot — but how about the 24 inches they got in Dixie on Jan. 10, 1989?
Lewiston has only once had a winter with only a “trace” of snow. That was in 1991-92. The town’s next-smallest total was 0.7 inches in 1907-08.
Baney may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2262. Follow him on Twitter @MattBaney_Trib.