Snow can be a blessing and a curse. While many people want a white Christmas, snow can be heavily disruptive. It’s fun when school is canceled, and people get to stay home from work, but snow can also make driving particularly dangerous, cause power outages, and break trees.
Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing (0ºC or 32ºF), and there s also moisture in the air. If the ground temperature is at or below freezing, the snow will reach and potentially stick to the ground.
Most storms are born from a phenomenon called “frontal lifting,” where a warm and cold airmass collide, causing two different events, 1) due to the lesser density of the warm air, it’s pushed up and over the mass of cool air and 2) essentially freeze-drying the moisture in the warm air, creating snow. Another way snow falls is through the collection of tiny ice crystals that eventually stick together, becoming heavy enough to fall to the ground. The flakes that become the largest move down through air slightly warmer than 0℃ and stick to even more ice crystals.
A lot of heavy snowfalls occur around the Great Lakes region due to something called the lake effect. Because moisture is an essential element needed to form clouds and snow, very cold air blows across a large, warmer body of water, causing a large snowstorm. Storms will get their start over the Great Lakes and then pass all the way from Minnesota to Maine.
Average Snowfall By State
You might think that the states with reputations for being the coldest would also be the snowiest, but that’s not the case. Moisture is a huge factor in snow production which means that sometimes states experience conditions that can be too cold for snow.
Average snowfall is calculated to represent what anyone in the state can expect to experience over the course of winter, but that isn’t exactly accurate, especially when discussing any state that has either large or distinct regions. For example, Arizona is a very large state with extreme variance in climate, ecosystems, and elevation from one end to another. As you will see with many large states, some areas get much more snow than others. We take that into account by looking both at the average per state, but also the average and median per region.
Median vs. Average
The average snowfall is measured by taking the averages of each region, adding them together, and dividing the sum by how many region averages were initially used. In general, this is a perfectly effective strategy for predicting snowfall in a state. The issue arises when the state is massive and has many varying regions and varying amounts of snow in each region.
To counter possible inaccuracies and false expectations, we included a table that holds the average and median of both the days per year it snows, but also the inches. That way, whether you are packing for a trip or thinking about relocating, you will have a better idea of what your winter days could look like.
For context, the median is found when you take all the figures, line them up from least to greatest, and select the one that is perfectly in the middle. If you have an even number of figures, you will find the average of the two in question. This same direction is taken when you only have two figures to compare.
Medians are helpful because they give a better representation of the figures that occur the most, where averages can be swayed by less large values. For example, in Northern California, there is an annual average snowfall of 14.3 inches, but there is a median of 0.7 inches. These figures tell very different stories because there is heavy snowfall in the eastern half of Northern California and very little on the west coast, but just relaying the average would give an incredibly distorted picture of what to expect come winter.
Note: The table with regional data included is the only one that takes days of snowfall and any median into account.
States With Variance
Since we are talking about states with snow, it makes sense that some states, specifically southern ones, will have either no data or strange data to relate. With that in mind, we have excluded two states from the region calculation because there was almost no data to report. These states include
Due to its location, climate, and shape, the state of Florida sees an average of almost no snow or 0.01 inches. If it were to snow in Florida, it’s in very particular and rare conditions, and it is unlikely that any will stay on the ground as prolonged freezing temperatures are required for snow not to melt upon impact.
It’s always so warm in Florida that even if it snows, there will not be much, and it will melt almost immediately.
In Hawaii, it’s a similar situation. While there are two peaks that can experience frequent winter storms, the entire rest of the state sees little to no snowfall.
On the other hand, we have states that have aggressive variations in how much snow can fall from one end to another. For example, in Maryland, the coast only has 10 inches of snowfall, whereas the western half sees 7x that. The states with the greatest amount of variation, ones where the snowfall at least doubles, include
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
The biggest similarity between all of the above states is that from one end to another there is a dramatic geological change. East to west or north to south, there is a mountain range that one-half of the state includes or a great enough change in elevation to precede snow. There are more details on each state below.
When you look at an elevation map of Arizona, you will see a difference that is impossible to ignore. In the southwestern corner of the state, there is the Sonoran Desert, which sits slightly above sea level. Almost the entire rest of the state is above 5,000 feet in elevation. This means that in the Pheonix area and below, you might experience one day of snow with maybe an inch landing on the ground. Above that, you can experience anywhere from 6 inches to more than 35, depending on your location.
Even though Arkansas is not the largest of the states we will discuss, from one end to another, there is an 80% difference in snowfall. In northern Arkansas, you can see more than 8 inches. In contrast, in the southern half of the state, there is an average of fewer than two inches.
California has one of the most dramatic differences from one region to another because of the Sierra Nevada region in the northeast. While the rest of the state gets essentially no snow, in those mountains, hundreds of inches of snow fall. For example, Alpine County experiences 140.2 inches on average.
No one will go to Colorado in the winter and not experience snow, but the difference location can make is drastic. On the eastern, more flat half of the state, you will likely see 45-55 inches of snow on the ground, which is a lot. The other side of the state has a median of 126.4 inches and an average of 113.5 inches of snow over winter. From one side of the state to another, there is over 2x the snowfall.
Like most states bordering the Great Lakes, Illinois’ northern half has to shovel double the snow that its southern neighbors do. Specifically, northern Illinois deals with a median of 34.5 inches per winter, and southern Illinois only has a median of 11.2 inches.
Like Illinois, Indiana borders the Great Lakes, which means that its residents often deal with “the lake effect,” which we explained above. The northern half sees over double the snowfall compared to the southern half. Northern Illinois and the Chicago Area, respectively, experience 34.4 and 31.3 inches, while the southern half has an average of 11 inches per winter.
In congruence with its southern neighbor, Virginia, Maryland is a long state that spans from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Appalachian Mountains. On the coast, there is only an average of 10 inches, but in the western half, there is an average of roughly 70 inches.
Cape Cod is a coastal peninsula that stretches out into the Atlantic Ocean. That area only experiences 23.8 inches on average per winter, whereas the western half of the state has an average of 77 inches.
In a southeast region of this strangely shaped state called “The Thumb,” Michigan residents can face over 40 inches over the course of winter. But in the Upper Peninsula, there are over 115 inches on average that fall, which falls in line with ‘the lake effect.”
Like all of the largest of the United States, Montana has dramatic differences from one end to another. In the eastern half of the state, residents experience a median of 43.7 inches and an average of 57.1 inches, whereas the southern half of the center of the state deals with a median of 141.9 inches and an average of 129.8 inches.
Like most other states in this region, the bottom of its shape experiences little to no snow, while the northern half sees almost 30 inches. Yet unlike other states, the center sees the most snow, with the median sitting at 50.7 and the average at 44.2 inches.
Sitting right in the high desert, we have New Mexico that entirely sits above 2,000 feet and stretches up to over 13,000 feet. The northern half sees an average of almost 40 inches of snowfall. The southern half sees less than 10 inches of snow on average.
Most states have impressive changes from east to west, north to south, or some other combination. Rarely, if ever, do states have all three. In the state of New York, you have the southern coastal region where New York City is located, but as you move either north or west, you see a dramatic increase in snowfall. For example, down on the coast, there is an average of fewer than 30 inches throughout winter. While in the regions immediately north and west of that, you see double or triple the snowfall. The highest rate of snowfall in the state happens up in the Adirondacks, with an average of over 126 inches.
While North Carolina is not known for harsh or long winters, there are differences from one half of the state to the other. In the mountains of the state, up in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you can see over 10 inches on average throughout the winter. But on the coast, residents rarely see an inch.
As with all states bordering the Great Lakes, Ohio has a drastic change in snowfall from north to south. In the southern half of the state, it’s common to see less than 20 inches over the entire winter, and in the northern half, they see an average of 40.6 inches.
Even though Oregon is not the largest state on this list, it does have one of the largest rates of variation when it comes to snowfall. As you’d expect, they have the least snowfall on the coast, averaging less than one inch. On the eastern half of the state, where the elevation sits over 2,000 feet, they enjoy around 10 inches of snow throughout winter. And because of the Cascade Mountain Range that cuts up the middle of the state, that region can see an average of 89.3 inches of snowfall and a median of 20. That means that while you could have incredibly heavy winters, it’s more likely you’ll see a total of roughly 20 inches fall.
Due to half of the state being high desert and the other half being the Rockies, Utah residents get a lot of snow. But while most of the state sits at a comfortable 20 inches or less per winter, the north/central region of Utah tends to get over 100 inches in a single season.
Just like its northern neighbor, Maryland, Virginia has one end in the ocean and the other in the mountains. Along the east coast, locals won’t see more than 10 inches over a season, whereas in the mountains, residents can easily expect to see over 20 inches.
Just like its southern neighbor, Oregon, Washington has a great deal of variation in snowfall throughout the state. It also holds some of the Cascade Mountains. Residents rarely see more than 5 inches on the coast and islands in one season. Yet, on the eastern half of the state and up in the mountains, there is an average of 37.4 and 51.1 inches, respectively.
Due to the incredibly mountainous nature of West Virginia, you will see a snowfall double from roughly 15 inches in the northwest region to more than 30 inches in the south. Then, you will see the amount of snow double again from the southern to the eastern portion, where snowfall averages 70 inches per season.
As with each state bordering the Great Lakes, Wisconsin also encounters the “lake effect,” which is part of what gives the Midwest its reputation for tough winters. On the eastern and southwest ends, they will have an average of roughly 45 inches per season. But on any section bordering a lake, they have much, much more. For example, along Lake Superior’s shore, they’ll see around 100 inches in one season.
Due to the size, location, and elevation of Wyoming, it’s no wonder they have tough, snowy winters. But one side gets much more than the others. The entire state sits at average snowfall of 38-59 inches snowfall, except for one region. The northwest corner of Wyoming’s rectangle can see over 150 inches of snow on the ground per season.