Virginia’s Biggest November Snowstorm in History Will Blow Your Mind

Written by Erin Cafferty
Updated: November 12, 2023
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Typically, you picture the first snowfall to come around Christmas time, blanketing your yard with fluffy white snow just in time for the holidays. But on November 11, 1987, the biggest snowstorm in Virginia history hit the region. Learn more about the Virginia blizzard that surprised the state one cold, November night and how the wildlife and residents fared after the storm.

The Storm’s Effect on Wildlife in Virginia

Pair of cardinals perching on a tree branch in the snow

Seven U.S. states have chosen the northern cardinal as their official state bird, including Virginia.

©iStock.com/Hongkun Wang

Virginia experiences all four seasons and includes a mixed landscape of mountains, hills, coastal beaches, and wetlands. This provides a home for an array of wildlife on land and in its waters.

Virginia wildlife wasn’t expecting the storm, but they are more adaptable than most given the state’s history of varietal weather. This storm hit in the middle of the season when animals need access to food to stockpile for the winter.

What animals did the biggest November snowstorm in Virginia history affect? If you step foot in Virginia at any point, you are bound to see two animals no matter where you are: cardinals and squirrels. In addition to those, other wildlife affected by this storm that blew through Dulles in northern Virginia included:

  • White-tailed deer
  • Bald eagles
  • Trout
  • Black bears
  • Garter snakes
  • Woodpeckers
  • Bass
  • Coyotes
  • River otters
  • Bats
  • Groundhogs
  • Eastern box turtles

The November Blizzard of 1987

Washington Dulles International

11 inches of snow hit the area around the Washington Dulles International Airport during the biggest November snowstorm in Virginia history.

©Joe Ravi/Shutterstock.com

Also known as the Veterans Day Snowstorm, the biggest November blizzard to ever hit Virginia is what you call a nor’easter. That’s a name for blizzards on the East Coast with winds typically coming from the northeast. The nor’easters that arrive in the early season like this one tend to be more violent.

This snowstorm surprised the Dulles area, including the Washington Dulles International Airport, with over 11 inches of snow on an unsuspecting Wednesday morning. This makes the Veterans Day Snowstorm the biggest November blizzard in Virginia history. But what’s wild is that the city of Richmond — over 121 miles away — got almost five inches of snowfall.

What made this storm even more remarkable is that meteorologists predicted only one inch of snow to fall that day. Monday had been nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the nightly weather report did not indicate that a massive snowstorm was heading to this area of Virginia. That goes to show you that Mother Nature can fool even the most seasoned expert!

How the Storm Impacted Virginia

Snowstorm, snow-covered street and cars with a lonely pedestrian

Stranded vehicles left commuters to find alternative ways to get to their destination during the November blizzard in Virginia.

©Tainar/Shutterstock.com

A record mid-November snowstorm is a 3 Sigma event, which means it has about a 0.3% chance of happening. Because this was such a surprise, early season storm, no utility vehicles dropped salt the night before to prepare. This resulted in a series of dramatic events affecting the residents of northern Virginia as well as people who drove through the area to reach Washington, D.C. for work. The Beltway shut down and dead-stop traffic jams left commuters stranded on the icy roads for nearly 24 hours.

Though it was possible to get to work, many were unable to. Of those who made it safely using the side or backroads, many mentioned being anywhere from 2-8 hours late for work that day! Buses even got stuck in the snow, which forced some students to walk home. However, most companies closed their offices, and schools were canceled until the streets were cleared for safe travel.

This area of Virginia only averaged about an inch of snow this early in November, so the county was not as proactive as it usually is in the later winter months. What made the conditions even worse? Fall leaves had dropped but hadn’t been cleared from the roads, which made travel treacherous.

Snowplows eventually came out to help local travelers, only to be met with clogged highways from abandoned vehicles. The situation was bad enough that the region developed the Washington Metropolitan Area Snow Plan soon after.

We don’t blame them! This storm dropped over 11 inches of snow in the suburbs, making it the biggest November snowstorm in Virginia history. But what’s wild is that the city of Richmond — over 121 miles away — got almost 5 inches of snowfall.

Bouncing Back After the Biggest Snowstorm to Hit Virginia

Snowplow

Snowplows worked hard to clear the roads after the blizzard.

©iStock.com/Philip Rozenski

Virginia learned its lesson after the Veterans Day Snowstorm. To avoid another similar disaster in the future, the region developed the Washington Metropolitan Area Snow Plan. Its purpose is to keep people off the roads during dangerous weather events. This allows the government to easily access the roads so treatment and emergency services can clear them quickly.

This plan includes resources for the public such as:

  • Severe snow routes for public transportation,
  • Important emergency contact information
  • Nearby warming center locations
  • Suggested travel schedules based on the weather

The next historic superstorm came close to five years later in March of 1993 when it caused 12-foot snowdrifts in portions of northern Virginia. The snow plan was put into action once again. This time, shelters opened across the state for nearly 4,000 stranded travelers and residents without heat. Virginia was more prepared in 1993, despite the unprecedented conditions.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Gerry Bishop/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Erin Cafferty is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on horses, mountains, and parks. Erin holds a Master’s Degree from Radford University, which she earned in 2018. A resident of Virginia, Erin enjoys hiking with her dog, visiting local farmer's markets, and reading while her cat lays on her lap.

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