The Snowiest Place in the World

Man building a snowman.

The North or South Pole might seem like good candidates for the snowiest places on earth. But the poles aren’t even in the running. The South Pole receives only a few inches of snow every year. There isn’t a weather station at the North Pole. But we know it doesn’t get very much snow either. Most places in the Arctic Ocean could qualify as a desert because they receive less than ten inches of precipitation a year. You need more than just cold temperatures to pick up impressive amounts of snow. Deserts whether cold or warm do not receive much snow because dry air is not conducive to snowfall. The recipe for a really impressive snowstorm is cold air moving over a warm lake or ocean. Syracuse, New York receives an average of 127 inches of snow a year. In winter, cold air masses move across Lake Ontario and dump impressive seasonal totals across upstate New York. But if you add mountains to our snowfall recipe, you can get even more impressive totals. Valdez, Alaska receives an average of 330 inches of snow a year. Cold air masses move across the warm Pacific Ocean. The air is then forced up the nearby mountains and buries the city in snow. Valdez is the snowiest city in the United States but it’s not the snowiest location in the United States. The mountains around Valdez pick up significantly more snow than the city with totals topping 500 inches. But the Pacific Northwest can do even better. The title of snowiest location in the United States belongs to either Mount Rainier or Mount Baker in Washington state. The official title belongs to Mount Rainier as it has better weather records. Mount Rainier receives an average of 671 inches of snow a year. In the winter of 1973, Mount Rainier received 1122 inches of snow. That’s over 93 feet. At the time, this was a world record for the largest amount of snow in a single season. But in 1998, Mount Baker surpassed Mount Rainier’s record by around 20 inches.

A highway through extremely deep snow in Japan. Author: タチヤマカムイCC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Although Mount Baker holds the record for most snow in a season, neither Mt. Rainier nor Mt. Baker is the snowiest place in the world. Japan has very tall mountains. It is also close to Siberia so it has a large supply of cold air. To reach Japan, the cold air masses must move across the warm Sea of Japan. Sukayu Onsen (a hot spring in the Hakkoda mountains of Japan’s Aomori prefecture) is the snowiest inhabited place in the world. Sukayu Onsen gets an average of 695 inches of snow a season. Extreme snowfall is not limited to Sukayu Onsen. Aomori Japan (population 265,000) is the snowiest big city in the world with an average of 312 inches of snow a season. We don’t have official records for many other places in the Japanese mountains but it is estimated that some areas are much snowier than Sukayu Onsen. As much as 1,500 inches of snow may fall every year on some of the highest peaks. Mount Ibuki in Japan holds the record for the deepest snow depth ever measured. On February 14, 1927, Mt. Ibuki recorded a snow depth of 465.4 inches. This record is even more impressive than it sounds because snow settles and becomes compacted as it remains on the ground. This means that even in cold places, the amount of snow that falls in a season will always be considerably more than the depth of snow at the end of a season.

Snow monsters in Zao Onsen, Japan. These strange shapes are created by the wind. Author: Ymblanter CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed

Although the Japanese mountains can have some fierce snowstorms they don’t hold all the snowfall records. On the 13th of February 1929, a snowstorm began over Mount Shasta Ski Bowl in California. By the time this storm ended six days later, it had dumped an amazing 189 inches of snow. 135 inches of that snow had fallen on just three days and 103 on just two. These are the records for most snow in a storm, most snow in two days, and most snow in three days. On the 14th of April 1921, 76 inches of snow fell in Silver City, Colorado. This is the record for the most snow in 24 hours in the United States (although not for the world as we shall see). There is an Alaska record of 78 inches of snow in 24 hours but the Colorado record is used officially.

Cars during a heavy snowstorm in Chicago. Author: Victorgrigas Image: PD

Some people do not like snow. They travel to warmer areas to avoid it. So where should you go to escape snow? You have many choices. The last time any appreciable snow fell in Rome was in 2012. It had been 30 years since the last heavy snowfall there. So maybe Italy would be a good place to go if you hate snow. Or maybe not. On March 5, 2015, 101 inches of snow fell in Capracotta, Italy, which is a mere 91 miles from Rome. This is the world record for most snow in 24 hours. The difference between Capracotta and Rome is that Capracotta is about 4,600 feet higher than Rome. A good way to avoid snow would be to keep in mind our heavy snow recipe: cold air, moisture, and mountains. You don’t need a place where all these things are missing. An area with no cold air or no moist air will not be snowy. So if Rome is too snowy for you, go to the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. While they are extremely cold (yearly average of 5 degrees) these valleys never receive large snow accumulations because of the constant dry winds blowing across them. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area of Antarctica and one of the driest areas in the world. But Rome sounds like it would be a lot more interesting, not to mention being more comfortable.

Spruce trees in the snow in Finland. Author: Muu-karhu CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed
Train in heavy snow in Norway. Author: David Gubler CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed