climate

New York After Snow

Remembering when we could count on storms to bury trash bags and cars, and offer us a few hours of quiet.

In January 1996, we got 20 inches in 37 hours.
In January 1996, we got 20 inches in 37 hours. Photo: James Leynse/Getty Images
In January 1996, we got 20 inches in 37 hours.
In January 1996, we got 20 inches in 37 hours. Photo: James Leynse/Getty Images

It was snowing hard outside as I wrote this, and the streets were black rather than white. The sidewalks, too, were dark. If the snowfall had stopped right then, the only evidence would be the barest bit of accumulation atop the trash cans and cars, and it would vanish within a couple of hours. The Department of Sanitation’s snazzy new high-tech system to deploy plows — screens, live digital maps, GPS tracking of every truck — was poised for heavy action, and yesterday gave it merely a light-gauge tryout. Little kids were able to gawk at the big wet flakes as they came down all morning, but that afternoon, they had nothing to play in, nothing to ball up and throw, nothing to hill up into forts in the park. The saucer sleds stayed in the closet.

It’s not that New York City will never see a heavy snowfall again. This was a particularly mild winter owing partly to El Niño, and that just happens more or less cyclically. But we have not seen more than minimal accumulation in well over two years, and given the changing climate, we’re headed toward fewer, not more. In New York’s temperature zone — reclassified in 2020 by the National Climate Assessment from humid-continental to subtropical — a blizzard will, henceforth, be an anomaly or a curiosity, not a maybe-once-a-year part of seasonal life but a twice-in-a-lifetime one. It will be covered as a freak storm, as when there’s a hard freeze in the citrus groves of Florida. (The growers spray their oranges with water, to encase them in ice and briefly insulate them from falling below 32 degrees; news sites always run a nearly identical icicle photo, every damn time.) Kids who grow up in New York will be astonished by a white Christmas, as their parents might have been if they grew up in Charlotte or Savannah or Atlanta. A relative of mine, recently visiting from Gainesville, was hoping that her small children could see some snow for the first time, and was asking whether she might have any luck if she just drove north from the city for a couple of hours. Nope.

Some of this is a peculiarity of our location. New York City’s local climate, in the most general sense, is buffered by our closeness to the ocean. Our weather tends to come toward us from the southwest, pushed across the lower Midwest and up the East Coast by the jet stream, rather than from the cold north. (We are just far enough south to avoid the dreaded “lake effect,” the mini-climate that regularly sends places like Syracuse into deep freezes.) The city often exists right at the line between heavy snow and none at all. Watch the isobars on the map as any storm approaches: Up in central New York, you see a projection of (say) nine inches’ accumulation; in Delaware County, six, in Rockland, three; cross into the greater metro area and it’s “zero to three,” and we end up looking like a not particularly sugary cookie. I remember staring at these maps as a child, my fingers crossed at the unlikely prospect that a big wind might knock everything just a little to the right and downward to close the schools. (Which, of course, does not quite happen anymore either.)

March 1888: 22 inches.

Circa 1905, on Fifth Avenue.

Circa 1941: Cop on the beat.

December 1947: We got 26.4 inches in Central Park, still a record.

December 1947 on Ninth Avenue, looking south. (The RITZ sign is on the Nabisco factory that now houses Chelsea Market.)

Photographs by ilbusca/Getty Images, Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock, Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images, Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection, Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
March 1888: 22 inches.
Circa 1905, on Fifth Avenue.
Circa 1941: Cop on the beat.
December 1947: We got 26.4 inches in Central Park, still a record.
December 1947 on Ninth Avenue, looking south. (The RITZ sign is on the Nabisco factory that now houses Chelsea Market.)

March 1888: 22 inches.

Circa 1905, on Fifth Avenue.

Circa 1941: Cop on the beat.

December 1947: We got 26.4 inches in Central Park, still a record.

December 1947 on Ninth Avenue, looking south. (The RITZ sign is on the Nabisco factory that now houses Chelsea Market.)

Photographs by ilbusca/Getty Images, Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock, Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images, Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection, Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

This was once a real cold-weather city. During the American Revolution, New York Harbor had frozen hard enough that the British army could move its cast-iron cannons across the ice. The infamous Blizzard of 1888 buried us in 22 inches of snow. A snowdrift in Brooklyn that day was 52 feet high. The storm abruptly silenced both the enormous telegraph network and the nearly new telephone system, their wires downed from their wooden poles. The East and Hudson Rivers froze that day, too; the ferries to and from Manhattan (there were no subways yet, and only the Brooklyn Bridge crossed the East River) were stilled, but one could simply walk across. The elevated train lines stopped too.

Closer to our own time, and still within living memory, came the city’s high-frozen-water mark: the blizzard of 1947, still the record holder, dropping 26.4 inches on Central Park the day after Christmas. The prediction, amusingly, had been for a light dusting; a Daily News headline the next day chortled, “EXPERTS HAVE ALIBI (WE HAVE SNOW).” There’s also another one-sentence story, buried inside the paper, that any 21st-century blogger would be pleased to have posted: “SILVER LINING COMES TODAY,” reads the headline, and the entire story below it is “The weather forecast for today: sunny.”

January 1996: The subway gratings were open, like the system itself.

January 1996: Our snow gets dirty fast.

January 1996: Chasing good tips.

January 1996: No virtual classrooms yet.

Photographs by Viviane Moos/Getty Images, New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images
January 1996: The subway gratings were open, like the system itself.
January 1996: Our snow gets dirty fast.
January 1996: Chasing good tips.
January 1996: No virtual classrooms yet.

January 1996: The subway gratings were open, like the system itself.

January 1996: Our snow gets dirty fast.

January 1996: Chasing good tips.

January 1996: No virtual classrooms yet.

Photographs by Viviane Moos/Getty Images, New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

I wasn’t around for either of those storms. But I have firsthand memories of two of the final big blizzards of the 20th century — and, at the rate we’re going, ever — in 1994 (about a foot of accumulation, in mid-February) and 1996 (20 inches, January). Plenty of people around town took the grown-up snow day, although not everyone did. Back then, my apartment was a short walk from New York’s offices, and I remember putting on boots and plodding over both times, wondering whether any of my colleagues would make it in. As it turned out, most of them did. The 1994 blizzard hit on a Friday, when the magazine goes to press, and we had to get the thing out the door. During one of these storms, I was on the phone with an editor at the Times of London, and he asked, “Aren’t you snowed in?” I explained that I lived a short walk away, and I could hear him smile on the other end as he cheerily said, “Ohhh, yes, a city man!” I have thought of myself thus ever since.

The scrape of the plow, when it does come, is often striking — because the distinctive quality of New York in a blizzard is its silence. The young E.B. White, in 1928, noted that during a city snowfall, “the hard chords of life are muted … something very like peace descends on street and park.” (He further proposed that the city take its plowing duties a little less seriously in order to enforce a little leisure time, a worldview that sounds less plausible and more Gen Z than one might expect.) Manhattan doesn’t go quiet often — even in the middle of most nights, there’s car traffic — and I’ve encountered real silence here only a few times. The blackouts didn’t do it, because people were out and about; even 9/11 didn’t, because there were so many emergency sirens. The only time my street has gone stone silent was during the pandemic, and it was not cozy but disturbing, because everything looked otherwise normal, as though the neutron bomb or the Rapture had come. By contrast, the mostly fume-free silence of a snowed-in city is comparatively cheery. The lack of car traffic, and the cleansing effect of precipitation, means the air smells better. For a lot of people, it’s an enforced break. I have seen cross-country skiers head down the center of the avenues. For others, it’s an opportunity. Food-delivery guys, for example, almost never call it quits, and you can see them bundle up and pedal along; you can argue that they shouldn’t need to chase tips in risky conditions, but the hustle and drive are admirable.

That busyness, the intensity with which we pound our pavement, means that our increasingly rare snow turns pretty rank pretty fast. Wait an hour after it starts to accumulate, and you can see where the dogs have been walked. Wait a day, and a lacy edge of grime forms on the hardening crunchy crust. Wait a week, as everything starts to melt and refreeze and melt again, and you will find piles that are nearly black with soot, exhaust, and God knows what other New York stuff. Not to mention the terrible boot-filling experience that is the enormous gray slush puddle at the street corner. My colleague Justin Davidson memorably noted that it’s a weirdly stateless policy failure, the responsibility of neither Sanitation nor Environmental Protection nor Transportation. We start each snowfall with something we don’t get every day — an enforced and comparatively nondestructive encounter with the unmediated natural world — and very quickly dirty it up.

We didn’t have time for that this week. I said up top that “it was snowing hard as I write this,” and indeed it was, several paragraphs ago. By the time I’d got here, it wasn’t. The street in front of my building, black and wet before lunch, is gray and dry well before dinner. Whatever we had, it’s gone.

New York After Snow