Charleston: A Winter Wonderland

Charleston, South Carolina (where I live) has a solidly subtropical climate. It’s on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and the same distance from the equator as Bermuda. Years can pass between any measurable snowfall. So it was very unusual on January 3, 2018 when over seven inches of the powdery stuff fell—in two hours.

This was caused by a strong low pressure system moving up the East Coast and encountering abnormally cold, high-pressure air from the northern Rocky mountains. This resulted in a powerful, rapid-developing storm (New Englanders will recognize this as a classic Nor’Easter). There was ice accumulation in Tallahassee, snowflakes in Jacksonville, record-breaking one-day snowfalls in Georgia and the Carolinas, and hurricane strength winds occurring from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.

The official measured snowfall was 5.3 inches, taken at the Charleston International Airport. In Summerville, ten miles northwest from the airport, 7.3 inches was recorded, the most in the whole state from the storm. According to the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper, the 5.3 inches was the third highest amount on record:

  1. December 22, 1989: 8.0 inches (dubbed “The Christmas Miracle Snowstorm”)
  2. February 10, 1973: 7.1 inches
  3. January 3, 2018: 5.3 inches
  4. February 1899: 3.9 inches
  5. December 15, 1943: 2.1 inches
  6. March 12, 1960: <2 inches

After the storm it got cold. Numerous temperature records were broken, and the frigid arctic air allowed the snow to linger for five full days–itself an all-time record.

Date Record Temperature (°F) Old Record (°F) Year
Jan. 1 Lowest Daily High 34 45 2001
Jan. 2 Lowest Daily High 35 40 2002
Jan. 2 Lowest Daily Low 19 (tie) 19 1940
Jan. 3 Lowest Daily High 31 33 2002
Jan. 4 Lowest Daily High 37 40 1950
Jan. 4 Lowest Daily Low 17 19 2008
Jan. 5 Lowest Daily Low 14 16 1981
Jan. 6 Lowest Daily High 34 39 1976
Source: National Weather Service Observed Weather, Local Climate Data

Interestingly, these are all at the airport in North Charleston, 15 miles from downtown. No records were broke in downtown itself.

We did get a brief reprieve: January 9’s high was 71, and on January 11 the mercury climbed to 77. It was amusingly odd to see people frolicking in snowdrifts, while wearing shorts, short-sleeve shirts and sandals.

For the curious there’s more records, a detailed scientific report, and (of course) Twitter updates.

But now, here’s some pictures!

It had been abnormally cold even in the days leading up to the big blizzard. At 8PM, December 31 the temperature dropped below 40 degrees—and would not rise above that until 11AM, January 8. (I could not confirm but I’m sure this is yet another record.)

There is a nice, ornate fountain on the campus of the college where I work. It is normally bubbling cheerfully. It was not bubbling cheerfully the morning of January 2, instead it looked like this:

It was about 22°F. People passing by glanced at the fountain, stopped and hurriedly dug out their smartphones, quickly snapped a picture, then scurried inside to warmth.

That afternoon the storm’s severity was clear and it would hit the area late tomorrow morning. The state Governor declared a State of Emergency, and as a result the college was closed. It would not reopen until next Monday.

The clouds increased the morning of January 3, and around 11AM sleet began to fall:

I’d forgotten how loud sleet can be. While standing outside it sounded like someone pouring pea gravel on my roof.

The sleet continued for a half hour. I thought “Goodness, I better take photographs quickly. It will surely warm up soon and this will melt away!” Um, yeah.

Just after 1PM the sleet switched to all snow. Then the winter storm began in earnest:

A few minutes after the snow started. Remember this scene, when it was just sleet?

The winds had been been calm up to now, but abruptly picked up. This scene faces west, so the right-to-left direction of the snow was from a strong north wind.

It’s odd seeing tropical things surrounded by driven snow. The palm trees looked…nonplussed:

Much of the city was shut down, including schools, malls, highway ramps, bridges, and the entire airport (on orders from the local Air Force Base, which uses the runways).

True story: state police troopers would drive on suspect roads to determine which were reasonably safe given conditions, and which should be closed as being too hazardous. Troopers’ opinions were sharply divided: some said “OMG this is a deathtrap shut it down NOW!” Others said “What’s the big deal? Just drive slow and leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front of you.”

It turns out the blasé troopers were all from the Midwest, where this was just another ho-hum dusting. From then on only native South Carolina Officers, who have lived here their whole life, got to decide which roads stayed open and which were closed.

There was a Carolina Wren flitting around my window. It also looked understandably confused about the weather.

Swimming, anyone? Plenty of room at the pool!

This probably won’t be used by the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau:

Now seriously. Does this look like part of a city voted a top tourist destination with renowned beaches? Or an outdoor scene from The Shining? I mean, really now.

The Day After. Many business and nearly all schools remained closed, so both kids and adults had great fun on their “snowcation” (as the local paper called it). The average Carolina household is not exactly overflowing with sleds, toboggans and snow saucers, so people improvised. Kayaks were a popular choice.

They also had to improvise scraping snow and ice off their vehicles, since few owned ice scrapers. Dustpans, spatulas and credit cards were used, the last one inevitably snapping in half, since they weren’t really built for de-icing.

The sun was bright! Somehow it seemed much brighter than similar snowstorms I experienced living in Michigan. I don’t know if it actually was, from the clear air and strong high pressure system, or it just seemed that way from the novelty of the ordeal.

Area residents had fun with the whole thing. One local posted an ad on Craigslist for genuine Charleston snow (“Act fast! This offer won’t be repeated for another three decades!”), there were mock instructions on converting kiteboards into snowboards, and numerous jokes about equipping golf carts with snow tires. The local alternative weekly, Charleston City Paper, ran an article proclaiming the city as “The South’s Hottest New Ski Resort!”. (What makes this especially funny is the area is all of sixteen feet above sea level and flatter than a granite countertop.)

This was taken on January 7, four days after the storm, with plenty of snow remaining. Some kids had built a snowman, complete with obligatory carrot. Given it was likely their very first snowman I think they did a good job.

Thanks for reading!