Weather Watch

7 inches of snow in Santa Margarita? 8 degrees in Paso? SLO’s surprising winter history

Snow falls in December 1988 at the Atascadero Sunken Gardens.
Snow falls in December 1988 at the Atascadero Sunken Gardens. The Tribune

The Central Coast experienced a bit of a whiplash weather pattern over the last month with a string of record-breaking high temperatures occurring from the end of January through the first half of February before transitioning to a more typical pattern with rain and average to even below-average temperatures.

In fact, both the Paso Robles and Santa Maria airports broke low temperature records Feb 24. On that morning, Paso Robles dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking the previous record of 23 set in 1953, while Santa Maria hit a low of 29, eclipsing the old record of 30 set in 1964.

The recent bout of cold weather has led to a series of questions from readers asking about snow and the most frigid temperatures seen in our region.

On Dec. 13-14, 1987, Arctic air from western Canada plunged over San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties, producing cold temperatures throughout the area. A running hose turned Vita Road in Atascadero into an ice rink. One avocado rancher near Morro Bay hired a helicopter to hover over his trees during the early morning hours to circulate warmer air throughout the grove to keep them from freezing.

One year later, an intense storm from the eastern part of the Gulf of Alaska produced record amounts of snow Dec. 15, 1988. The National Weather Service, which then had an office in Santa Maria, estimated that 5 to 8 inches of snow fell over a widespread area of the North County. Santa Margarita reported 7 inches of snow. Although San Luis Obispo saw no snow, 1.25 inches of rain fell with a low temperature of 35 degrees.

The Telegram-Tribune reported the following: The snow closed Highways 101, 46 and 41. At one point during the storm, nearly 500 cars were stranded, and about 400 people spent the night in emergency shelters throughout San Luis Obispo County. Hotel rooms were packed. Cal Poly had to cancel its basketball game with San Francisco State, and numerous high school basketball and soccer matches were also canceled.

I remember that it looked like a winter wonderland on the north side of the grade.

In late December 1990, a strong southerly flowing jet stream moved a cold Arctic air mass from western Canada, the so-called Yukon Express, down the West Coast. There were reports of snowflakes in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and even Pismo Beach and Nipomo on the night of Dec. 20, 1990, with overnight lows falling to the low 20s on the north side of the Cuesta Grade.

By Dec. 22, 1990, the winds at Diablo Canyon shifted out of the north-northeast, and the temperature hit the freezing point for the first time since 1976 when Diablo Canyon first started keeping weather records. Gary Ryan, who was a meteorologist with the NWS in Santa Maria, confirmed record-breaking low temperatures on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23.

Atascadero fell to a bone-chilling 4 degrees while Templeton dropped to a numbing 9 degrees. The Paso Robles airport reported an all-time low of 8 degrees. San Luis Obispo dropped to 17 degrees. The average temperature in Santa Maria was 38 degrees over a 48-hour period.

The region’s avocado crop was hard hit, and numerous water pipes burst. Plumbers were kept busy for days afterward repairing pipes and fixtures. Many local hardware stores were completely sold out of plastic and copper pipe and anything else to do with plumbing. Freezing winds blew through the Salinas Valley and killed or severely damaged many eucalyptus trees along Highway 101.

This was considered a once-in-100-year event.

But similar unusual weather — albeit less severe — hit back in March 2006 when a frigid air mass 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. 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.

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In 2017 nearly 80 percent of the electricity that PG&E provided to our customers came from sources that are renewable and/or emit no greenhouse gases.

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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