Lake-effect snow in NY just like Victoria, B.C. blizzards of 1996 & 1916

The Victoria blizzard of 1996 (Dec. 28-29) dropped 124 centimetres (48.8 inches) of snow. Not too far off some recent accumulations around Buffalo and other western New York State communities (great photos here). Just wacky weather (and nothing to do with polar bears) but memorable if you’ve lived through it and the stories out of NY have twigged my memories.

We get a maritime version of “lake-effect” snow here in Victoria (which is on Vancouver Island), where cold air moves offshore from the Interior of the province, travels over the relatively warm Strait of Georgia (see map below) and dumps snow on south island communities. Victoria is renowned for mild winters but when these cold conditions all line up just right, Victoria might as well be Buffalo.

Snow at "Bob's" front door.  A Flickr photo, hope you don't mind, Bob!

Snow at the front door, original here, taken 28 December 1996 in Victoria, B.C.

I didn’t have a camera then, which is a pity, but others did. Someone downtown (where accumulations were somewhat less than 48 inches) made a video, copied below. A diversion from polar bear shenanigans that you might find of interest.

Such extreme dumps of snow don’t happen often here but they did in 1996 (and 80 years before, in 1916), with effects just like NY folks are experiencing today: people trapped in their homes, transport at a stand-still, local power outages, and roof collapses (in ’96, we had greenhouses demolished and boats sunk as boathouses collapsed).

Downtown, accumulations were more like 2 ft, with higher drifts. Out at the airport just north of downtown — near where I lived at the time — we had the full 4 ft reported. That was armpit high on me, with drifts even higher. OK, nowhere close to the 8 ft. accumulations in the hardest-hit NY neighbourhoods today, but close to the totals other communities are experiencing.


In 1996, there were few snow plows. A plea for snowmobiles went out to transport medical personnel but there were only six (as I recall) available.

Our front deck with 3 ft-high solid sides was filled to the brim. The first order of business at our house that morning was clearing a short path to get the dogs out to pee. Took the two kids 3 hours to get the job done.

Below, an artful “The Blizzard of 96 Victoria BC” video.

See also this 10-year anniversary report from 2006: “Blizzard of 1996: ‘Whitemare’ paralyzed capital and brought us closer together”

And, reports on the prior event 80 years before: “The Great Blizzard of 1916 in Victoria” with photos.

Finally, some details and historical perspective on the 1996 Victoria blizzard, excerpted from this account:

“Here in Victoria, snowfalls above 10 cm (4 inches) are rare, and in this particular situation, Mother Nature had taken the upper hand on local civilization. By the time the snow had tapered to a few flurries and changed to light rain, the official total snowfall measured a record two-day total of 124 cm (48.8 inches) and a 24-hour snowfall of 64.5 cm (25.4 inches) on December 28-29, a local record as well.

I term the event a transportation emergency since the accumulated snow prevented people from going where and when they pleased. Even four-wheel drive vehicles could not negotiate the deeply covered streets. The hardy took to walking or skiing. The greatest concerns arose when emergencies occurred, and police, emergency vehicles and medical attention could not get to the site because of the snow-clogged streets. Victoria has but a few snowplows (five at the time), and most are attached to the centre of dump trucks, a viable method of snow removal in the normal light snows but of little use in deep snow accumulations since the trucks could not drive over the snow in front of them.

Not only did mechanized surface transportation stop, but Victoria International Airport and the BC Ferry service to the mainland and surrounding Gulf Islands also ground to a standstill. Staff could not reach the terminals nor could any passengers get to or from the airport and ferry terminals. Boating was possible if you could get to one, but before you could embark, the decks had to be shovelled free of the heavy snow to avoid capsizing. Many protective boathouses collapsed under the immense weight of the snow, trapping and often damaging the boats within.

The various levels of government (Victoria is the Provincial capital) were slow to react to the gravity of the situation. As a result, a local and popular talk radio station CFAX voluntarily undertook organization of the community response, initially through default but later because word had reached many citizens to tune to them for emergency information. (CFAX would later be cited with a special award from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for their efforts during the situation, an award for which I nominated them.)

CFAX’s open phone line manned by announcers Mike King and Greg Morin connected those in need with those who could render assistance. For example, up the Saanich Peninsula, a seniors’ housing complex was literally snowed in. Snow drifted around the building prevented doors from being opened, and many of those trapped within became frightened. One elderly woman phoned CFAX emotionally asking for anyone with a shovel and within walking distance of the complex to help dig out the seniors. Within hours, a small squad of neighbours descended to clear the doorways of snow.

Those businesses — restaurants, shopping malls, groceries — that might have been open during the mid-holiday period were forced to remain closed because employees could not negotiate the trip to work. Bakeries dumped thousands of dollars of bread and dough when the bakers could not reach work nor the baked bread be delivered. Dairy farmers were forced to dump their milk for several days because it could not be taken to the dairies for processing and distribution.

The storm wrought major damage to many buildings and utility structures around the region as the weight of the waterlogged snow collapsed roofs, sports bubbles, boat houses, carports and greenhouses. A number of boats sank under the weight of snow on deck, and several float homes capsized or sank. Many of the region’s fragile greenhouses, private and commercial, were crushed under the burden of the snow, destroying not only the structure, but the crops growing within.

Some specific incidents included:

– Roof cave-ins at the Thrifty’s Food Store in James Bay, North Saanich Panorama Leisure Centre, Glen Meadows Golf Club curling rink;
– Thirty-five boats lost at the Capital City Yacht Club in Sidney, sunk or damage in boathouse collapses;
– An Esquimalt float home capsized with all contents lost;
– Two Viking Air hangers collapsed, destroying four aircraft and assorted equipment inside;
– Vantreight and Sons greenhouses crushed under weight of snow.

But when Victoria gets snow, it can get it by the metre! In fact, Victoria is the only Canadian city west of eastern Ontario to officially record a snowfall of more than 50 centimetres in a single day. According to federal climatologist David Phillips, this has happened three times since records began in Victoria in 1898. The first was a 53.3-cm (21-inch) fall on Groundhog Day, February 2, 1916. The second on Valentine’s Day (February 14), 1923: 50.8 cm (20 inches). And the third, my year-end storm of 1996: 65 cm (25.6 inches). (Do you see a holiday trend here?) Prior to official weather record keeping, huge snows reportedly fell on Victoria in 1880, 61 cm (24 inches); and 1887, 91 cm (36 inches). [my bold]

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