Snowless in San Francisco

Snow is so rare in San Francisco that one of the few places you’ll ever be guaranteed to see it is on our Nutcracker stage, during the famous “blizzard” at the end of Act I. But why does our beautiful city, otherwise famed for its chilly temperatures, see so few snowfalls?

To find out, we enlisted the expert help of another San Francisco institution that “makes it snow” every year in their 30 foot-high piazza: the world-renowned California Academy of Sciences...

  • A snowy street in the Mission district of San Francisco, 1887. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    So, why does San Francisco so rarely see snow? The answer, says the California Academy of Science’s Curator of Geology Dr. Peter Roopnarine, might surprise a city that’s affectionately mocked for its chilly climate and enveloping fogs: we just don’t get cold enough.

  • The California Academy of Science’s neighbor, the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, after a snowfall, 1887. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    San Francisco has this in common with most of the Pacific northwest coast, says Dr. Roopnarine, because the ocean controls our climate: “Land masses change temperature much more quickly than does water, and hence inland areas have more variable climate. Waters off San Francisco are cooler than air temperatures inland during summer, and as that inland air heats up, cool air is pulled in off the ocean creating our famous summer fogs. Similarly, during winter as temperatures fall inland, our ocean offshore moderates our temperature.”

  • A “snow party” given in Golden Gate Park on Dec 31, 1947, sponsored by the San Francisco News. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    It’s hard for San Franciscans not to get excited when snow does make an appearance in our city. These photos from a “snow party” given in Golden Gate Park on New Years Eve,1947 (just four years after SF Ballet’s Nutcracker premiered at the War Memorial Opera House) show 175,000 lbs of shaved ice simulating a snowstorm for a crowd of over 10,000 people. Unfortunately, what happened after that was a little less picturesque…

  • A “snow party” given in Golden Gate Park on December 31, 1947, sponsored by the San Francisco News. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    According to contemporary reports, the snow party had to be called off after excitable youngsters pelted bystanders with snowballs. Panicked park authorities were apparently forced to turn on all available lawn sprinklers to melt away all snowy ammunition. More recently, reports of possible snowfalls caused widespread excitement in February 2011, but hopes were dashed when the promised conditions failed to materialize.

  • Snow in the Richmond district of San Francisco, 1882. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    Judging from these images of San Francisco’s past, snow in this city seems to be getting less and less frequent as the years pass. The last time San Francisco saw a “true” snowstorm was back in 1976, when a maximum of five inches fell over the city. Before that, records show significant snowfalls in 1962 and 1951, and 19th-century flurries just five years apart in 1887 and 1882.

  • San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf after a snowstorm, 1939. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

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    But Dr. Roopnarine is reluctant to rush to blame global warming, “primarily because our record of these winter snow events here is so irregular. It is most likely tied to long-term fluctuations of Pacific temperatures on the time scale of decades. My feeling is that we are simply drier now than we were in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century—a feature which seems to be true for much of the southwest United States.”

  • Snow in Golden Gate Park, 1932. Image courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

    While San Francisco snowfalls are newsworthy events, don’t assume the rest of the Bay Area is similarly immune. Dustings of snow do on occasion visit the elevated peaks of Marin County or on Mount Diablo in the East Bay—conditions Dr. Roopnarine says are caused by a combination of low temperatures and moisture coming from the north, typically the Gulf of Alaska.

  • South Shore, Lake Tahoe (Steve Dunleavy, Flickr)

    Less than 200 miles away from San Francisco, the winter resorts of Lake Tahoe count on an average annual snowfall of well over eight feet, and the high roads through Yosemite National Park frequently become impassable from October through April. “This winter snow, of course, fills your summer water glass,” reminds Dr. Roopnarine. “If you hike, ski, or snowboard in the snow-capped mountains this season, remember that you are in one of California’s most important sources of water: annual snowpack in the Sierra Nevada provides about 30% of California’s water and 85% of the water in the Bay Area.”

  • San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker (© Erik Tomasson)

    If all this talk has made you crave a holiday snowfall, don’t despair: you’re guaranteed a blizzard onstage during performances of our Nutcracker  from December 11 through 29! You can also experience indoor snow flurries, meet a pair of live reindeer, watch holiday performances, and more at the California Academy of Sciences’ annual ‘Tis the Season for Science exhibit in Golden Gate Park.

  • Tis the Season for Science at the California Academy of Sciences

Do you remember a San Francisco snowfall from years gone by? Tell us in the comments!

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