There’s no season like winter in Pennsylvania – the time of year when we actually do care about the weather. It can get pretty hot and humid in the summer, but as not as bad as down south. We get some decent thunderstorms, but almost never anything like tornado alley. We occasionally get tropical storms, but the winds are almost never strong enough to knock out the power this far inland. However, there have been some major flooding events in the past 50 years as a result of post-tropical storms. But that’s usually a once-in-a-decade type deal.
But when it comes to winter, that’s when all eyes are on the weather. Winter seasons have proven to be extremely variable in PA, with some winters not bringing much snow and others bringing quite a lot. Either way, it gets way too cold to enjoy the outdoors, so it might as well snow in my completely “unbiased” opinion.
We get a lot of comments each winter stating things like, “How is this a MAJOR storm, my area is only getting 2″ of slush (meanwhile other parts of PA are getting 15″)?!?” or “My area NEVER gets it, we always miss out!”. Those comments are not completely off the rails, because snowfall does on average greatly differ around the state.
In fact, some places get 8 times the amount of snowfall as others. There are some general themes though. Lake effect is everything in parts of Northern and Western PA. It can be a sunny, windy day in Philadelphia while Erie is seeing a whiteout. Typically, elevation makes a big difference too. This is most pronounced in the Laurel Highlands, where the ski resorts there average over 100″ of snow a year, while 50 miles away to the east and west averages less than half that. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the average snow map!
In general, Southeast Pennsylvania sees the least snow with a normal season bringing about two feet. Northwest PA and the Laurel Highlands see the most snow, where a normal season brings anywhere from 6 to 12 feet depending on elevation and localized lake effect belts. The winter season is a way of life in those places, and a common struggle that everyone endures. You really cannot live in those areas without four wheel drive and snow tires. Those are the areas that laugh at the rest of the state for stressing over four inches of snow while they sip their Tim Hortons before firing up their snow blower for the fourth time this week.
Now for the extremes: Edinboro (just south of Erie) averages 152″ of snow a winter, and areas near Philadelphia average 18″. Edinboro picked up 245″ in the winter of 2000-01, and a measly 94″ in the 2011-12 winter. Philadelphia’s least snowy “winter” on record came in the 2019-20, with 0.3″ recorded at the airport. But down laugh at them just yet, because their maximum is a respectable 78.7″ in 2009-10.
Seasonal snowfall is more consistent in Western PA due to clipper systems and Lake Effect. They are usually on the the outskirts of coastal storms, meaning they still get some snow almost never measured in feet. However in Central and Eastern PA, coastal storms are the talk of the town and what makes our winters “boom or bust”. One coastal storm can bring these areas a quarter to half, and in some cases their entire average seasonal snowfall.
The 24 hour snowfall record was during a coastal storm in Lakeville, PA (Poconos), with an astounding 41″ on February 16, 1958. But there have been some massive Nor’easters recently, including two in the 2020-21 winter that dumped three feet of snow in parts of Eastern PA.
I think we can all agree that the best time to see snow is around the holiday season and perhaps specifically on Christmas, but unfortunately recent trends have been that winter starts later and ends later, meaning less cold and snow in December and more in March…ugh.
So as it turns out – winter in PA can be drastically different depending on where you are, and even from year to year. It’s going to be cold everywhere, so if you’re looking for a reward for the cold, you now know where to look!