A Closer Look at North Conway’s Annual Snowfall Numbers
and Averages around Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch
By Ed Bergeron & Brian Fitzgerald
ABOVE PHOTO: A weather observer at Pinkham Notch in 1969, a record-high snow year. Appalachian Mountain Club photo.
Do you recall when there always seemed to be a week of below-zero weather each January? How about winter blizzards with 24 inches or more of snow? I’m sure that we occasionally received a little freezing rain too, but ice storms and just plain warm rain like we’ve seen in recent years? That’s a significant change.
Joe Dodge, former AMC Hut System manager and founder of the Mount Washington Observatory, moved from Pinkham Notch to his new home on West Side Road, North Conway in 1958. He established a National Weather Service (NWS) COOP Observer station at his house shortly thereafter and started weather observations in January 1959. He continued daily weather observations until passing in September 1973. Briggs Bunker picked up where Joe left off a few months later in January 1974 (the NWS station was officially designated NCON3) and continued observations at his home on Pine Street in North Conway until September 2006. Following Brigg’s tenure as the local NWS observer, I began taking observations at my home fairly clse to Dodge’s original NWS Coop Observer weather station, and continued until the station was moved to the Mount Washington Observatory site on Pine Street North Conway, not far from the Bunker home, in October 2015. Mount Washington Observatory staff and volunteers continue daily observations at NCON3 today.
In my records, I have an NWS climatological summary of means and extremes from 1959 to 1971. Mean snowfall was 113.4 inches. The maximum month was February 1969 with 67.5 inches.
The greatest snowfall day also occurred in February 1969 with 21 inches being officially recorded by Dodge on West Side Road in North Conway. I remember skiing at Wildcat that year, and skiers had to ski down into an excavated hole to load the upper mountain chair lift. Memory recalls skiing lasted well into May that year.
The daily mean monthly temperature for the period was 43.3 degrees. The daily mean December temperature was 22.0, January was 17.0 degrees, February was 18.9 degrees and March was 30.0. Now, compare this with our latest climate averages from the period of 1991-2020 and you’ll note warmer winter temperatures, with December featuring a daily mean temperature of 26.6 degrees, January 19.9 degrees, and February 22.3.
Additionally, you’ll note that mean snowfall has fallen from 113.4 inches to 84.0 inches—2 feet less snow in most winters. Keep in mind, this is only an average, with seasonal snowfall totals ranging anywhere from a piddly 41.0 inches in 2015-2016 to a robust 147.0 inches in 2007-2008.
Naturally, you may be curious about where winter 2022/23 will stack up following two less-snowy-than-normal winters (44.8 inches in 2020/21 and 62.0 inches in 2021/22). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its outlook for the upcoming winter season and summarized the forecast succinctly as “Warmer, drier South with ongoing La Nina.” With a third consecutive winter of La Nina influencing weather patterns across North America, it’s reasonable to suspect a similar result to the past two winters. According to NOAA and the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, New Hampshire’s southern and central tiers are somewhat likely to experience above-normal temperatures, while the forecast for precipitation has equal chances of above- or below-normal levels.
Year-to-year variability of snowfall and wintertime temperatures are a given in our climate; however, as we continue to observe and understand long-term trends in our region, the nature of our seasons is changing. Winter is no exception, and a collaborative project between the Mount Washington Observatory, Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, and the Appalachian Mountain Club has focused in on how the White Mountains are responding to our changing climate. Long-term measurement has been ongoing at sites across the White Mountains, thanks to these entities at the summit of Mount Washington, Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (just north of Plymouth, NH), and at Pinkham Notch (overlapping since at least 1959 for all three sites). These locations provide us with a sense of changes at different elevations and tell us the following: Air is warming. Spring is arriving earlier. We are losing the cold and snow.
As is evident in North Conway, the air is also warming across the White Mountains, regardless of elevation. In winter, this means we are losing the overall number of cold days, with both Pinkham and Mount Washington losing more than 14 “frost days” since 1935. Losing cold temperatures, in turn, has helped to diminish our typical snowpacks across the region.
Many of us can recall a “January thaw” as well during the past, with rain-on-snow events seeming to occur with some frequency in the region in recent winters. Confirming this observation, a study on Mount Washington has noted an overall increase in the frequency and intensity of winter thaw events even on New England’s highest peak (Kelsey & Cinquino 2021).
With all that said, you may be ready to put your skis and snowshoes back in the shed—but fear not! Snow will fall this winter, and should you be ready for it, you can take advantage of whatever Mother Nature throws at us this season. If you’ve been skiing at resorts such as Cranmore, Bretton Woods, or elsewhere, you’ll note significant investments and advancements have been made in snowmaking and snow quality. Resorts have adapted and will continue to adapt to variable conditions, seeking to retain snow and create the highest quality conditions. Other adaptations may still be needed, and certainly mitigating the overall impacts of climate change should be a focus to help us retain the character of our New England winters.
If you’re looking for a way to contribute to the knowledge of our region’s weather and climate, there are two excellent citizen science programs that most anyone can participate in as well. For true snow lovers who like to venture into the hills, the Community Snow Observations (CSO) campaign encourages backcountry travelers to measure snow on the ground using a free, easy, downloadable app.
The CSO program aims to help fill in the massive measurement gaps particularly found in the complex, thinly settled mountains. Understanding snowpack characteristics ultimately builds our knowledge of downstream impacts, such as flooding threats, and forest and aquifer health. Visit www.communitysnowobs.org to learn more about this great program, and add your measurement to the map!
Finally, for the weather lovers out there, be sure to check out the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) to start measuring precipitation right in your own backyard. CoCoRAHS is a low-cost, easy-to-join network of volunteers measuring precipitation for natural resources, education, and research applications. Join the network and become a volunteer at www.cocorahs.org. Oh … and think snow!
Remember when we used to waddle to school or play in waist-deep snow going uphill both ways?
Ed Bergeron is a local weather observer, trustee, and previous executive director of the Mount Washington Observatory. He hosts the Morning Weather Show each day at 7:45 a.m. on 93.5 WMWV FM.
Brian Fitzgerald is the director of science & education for Mount Washington Observatory, a private, nonprofit, member-supported institution with a mission to advance understanding of the natural systems that create the Earth’s weather and climate.
For more information, visit www.mountwashington.org.