Weather Watch

Has it snowed in SLO? Officially, no. But 1922 photos tell a different story.

Snow on Monterey Street in downtown San Luis Obispo in 1922.
Snow on Monterey Street in downtown San Luis Obispo in 1922.

At Christmas time, people often ask if it has ever snowed in San Luis Obispo. Well, the answer seems to be yes and no.

Since 1870, no measurable snowfall has been recorded, according to weather data from Cal Poly, which houses climate records for San Luis Obispo. Snowfall is measurable when there is at least one-tenth of an inch on the ground.

San Luis Obispo — with its low elevation and mild temperatures because of the persistent marine influence from the Pacific Ocean — just doesn’t make a likely candidate for measurable snow. Because of the relatively warm ground temperatures, when snow does fall, it quickly melts away.

However, there have been reports of snow and flurries in town and numerous beautiful photographs of the snow-capped Santa Lucia Mountains surrounding the coastal communities of San Luis Obispo County throughout the years.

In Tribune photographer David Middlecamp’s column “Photos From The Vault,” a series of black and white photos from 1922 shows snow on the ground in San Luis Obispo. In the pictures, the unidentified townsfolk are seen throwing snowballs. Judging from the photographs, not more than three-tenths of an inch of snow was on the ground, and that probably quickly melted before it could be officially recorded.

»» Related: A slideshow of snow scenes in SLO County

Back in March 2006, a very unusual weather event occurred when a frigid airmass settled southward into Central and Southern California. As if on cue, an upper-level low-pressure system moved southward over the Central Valley of California and was able to pick up enough moisture from the Pacific Ocean to produce thunderstorms and snow levels that reached the sea.

The clap of thunder sounded early Saturday morning, March 11, 2006, throughout the county and snow levels dropped to near sea-level. Joe Higgins, who worked at Diablo Canyon Power Plant on that Saturday morning, phoned me to say that snow was falling along the Pecho Coast and it wasn’t hail. Other weather watchers sent me reports of snow flurries along Highway 101 between Avila Valley and Pismo Beach.

Right after the phone call, I drove out to the power plant, but most of the snow was already gone.

Perhaps the most famous snow event occurred on Dec. 15, 1988, when an intense storm from the eastern part of the Gulf of Alaska combined with a cold, upper-level low-pressure system that moved through Central California from Nevada.

This system produced record amounts of snow in the North County (5 to 8 inches) and Santa Margarita (7 inches). It looked like a winter wonderland in the North County on that day. San Luis Obispo reported 1.25 inches of rain, sleet and snow flurries with a low temperature of 35 degrees.

I received this email from a reader named Ted about the December 1988 snow event: “It snowed on this morning — from Big Sur to Malibu — my son was born in Sierra Vista (Regional Medical Center) at 10:03 a.m. I remember as labor was ending, the doctor commented on the rain and then snow!! And then Jesse was born!”

With that beautiful story, I wish everybody happy holidays!

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Nationwide, firefighters respond to an average of 250 structure fires caused by holiday trees each winter. Statistics show home fires typically increase during winter months. Remember to water Christmas trees daily, and keep decorations away from heating sources and candles. Make sure smoke detectors are installed and working. To learn more, please visit www.pgecurrents.com.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.

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