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Snow In Los Angeles

Bob Timmermann, Senior Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
melting snowman in a field

As the start of winter draws near (the winter solstice will be on December 21 in 2012 and it happens at 3:12 am on the West Coast according to the U.S. Naval Observatory), most of us will see snow. It will appear on holiday cards, in familiar TV holiday specials, people will sing about it, and, those of us in certain parts of Los Angeles, will even see it on the mountains that ring the area.

But, like in most years, it is unlikely that residents of Los Angeles will see any snowfall in their neighborhoods. Which is not to say it will never happen—it all depends upon where you live, how long you live, and that a lot of atmospheric factors all line up.

To get snow, you need two important ingredients: freezing air and moisture. Los Angeles can come up with moisture, but freezing temperatures are very rare in Los Angeles because of its latitude and the very large body of water known as the Pacific Ocean (it’s the big blue thing you see at the beach with the waves), which tends to make our temperatures a bit more temperate.

However, the city of Los Angeles is not a small place (over 468 square miles) and the topography can vary greatly. The altitude in Los Angeles can vary from sea level (again take note of the big blue watery thing at the beach) all the way to 5,066 feet at Mount Lukens in the San Gabriel Mountains.

When the news media speak of snow in Los Angeles, they are usually referring to snow that falls at what is known as the Civic Center Weather Station. This term refers to a variety of locations near Downtown Los Angeles, although the station presently resides on the USC campus.

Most reference sources mark the date of the last “snowstorm” to hit Downtown Los Angeles as January 22, 1962. Heavy snow fell in the mountains and high deserts, but parts of Downtown and West Los Angeles had some snow, too; however, most of it melted fairly quickly as heavy rains followed, leaving quite a mess.

The biggest snow event that most Angelenos (at least those older than 63) might remember would be the snows of 1949. There was measurable snowfall on January 10-11, 1949, when about 1/3 of an inch of snow fell on Los Angeles over a two day period. The L.A. Times ran an editorial headline “That’s Right, Junior, It’s Really Snow.” The library’s Photo Collection has numerous photos of this event with residents trying to show off their ability to make a decent snowman.

However, if you want to go to the higher elevations of Los Angeles, most of which are in the San Fernando Valley, you can find reports of snow from all the way back in … 2011.

On February 26, 2011, the snow level in the area dropped to around 1,700 feet, which led to snow falling in parts of Sunland/Tujunga and Studio City. Some areas as low as 700 feet got snow. (This author learned that when it gets cold enough to snow, his dashboard actually lights up with a yellow snowflake, although that’s to warn of possible ice on the roadway.)

Another blast of snow hit the north end of the San Fernando Valley on February 8, 1989, that left up to 5 inches of snow in places like Porter Ranch, Granada Hills, and Tarzana, although the snow did not stay on the ground for very long. Nevertheless, this intrepid writer did manage to get a “snow child” made before it disappeared.

It’s unlikely that people in Los Angeles will ever experience a “White Christmas” unless they watch the Bing Crosby movie on TV or they can hire a Hollywood special effects person to make snow for them. In Los Angeles, snow will almost always be something that people will just have to look at in the mountains around the city. But, snow can and will fall in Los Angeles if you are extremely patient, and willing to get very cold by Southern California standards.