Snowiest City in the World

Determining the snowiest cities in the world is not as straightforward as it might seem.

The first problem is deciding what is meant by “snowiest cities.” Probably the simplest interpretation would be the cities with the highest average annual snowfall, but that’s not the only possible interpretation. “Snowiest cities” could also refer to the cities with the highest single year of snowfall, the cities with the highest single day of snowfall, perhaps even the cities where it snows the most days per year, or the cities that have snow on the ground the most days per year.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes a city. In the United States, for instance, Valdez, Alaska averages 324 inches of snow per year, the Mt. Baker ski area in Washington once received 1,140 inches of snow in one season, and the Mt. Rainier Paradise Ranger Station averages 676 inches of snow per year, but Valdez has a population of about 4,000, Mt. Baker has a population of about 150 and isn’t even incorporated as a town, and the Mt. Rainier Paradise Ranger Station is, well, a ranger station. Are any of these “cities” in the sense intended?

But the biggest problem is that in most of the world, there are no accurate regular measurements taken of snowfall, especially long term historical data that can be used to calculate an annual average. For North America, much of the First World, and the largest cities of the world there’s reasonably good data, but good luck determining the average annual snowfall in every godforsaken little town in the middle of Greenland or Siberia.

If we limit the discussion to just major world cities with a population of at least 1 million, then most sources peg Sapporo, Japan, host to the 1972 Winter Olympics, as the snowiest with an average of 200 inches of snow per year. Sapporo even plays up its snowy reputation, hosting a Snow Festival every winter.

Other world cities of that high a population known for being particularly snowy include St. Petersburg, Russia, and Harbin, China. Harbin, though, is really only snowy in the sense that it is snow-covered a high number of days per year, since it is very, very cold very, very long, and once there is snow on the ground it tends not to melt. Indeed, Harbin, like Sapporo, is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival, but in fact while the snowfall at nearby ski resorts at higher elevations is very high (e.g., an estimated 300 inches annually at Yabuli ski resort), the actual snowfall within the city of Harbin itself is quite modest.

Interestingly, snowfall is not all that closely correlated with temperature or latitude. Parts of the polar regions have more of a desert climate in fact, with little precipitation. (Yes, deserts can be cold, even though we normally picture something like the Sahara when we think of a desert.)

In the United States, if we again consider only cities with a population of at least 1 million (and if we fudge by including the entire metropolitan area), then Buffalo, New York is the snowiest, at 91 inches per year. Syracuse, New York’s metropolitan area doesn’t quite reach 1 million, but it gets even more snow—114 inches per year. If we bend the population requirement a little more, Rochester, New York, Duluth, Minnesota, and (perhaps surprisingly) Flagstaff, Arizona also are high on the list of U.S. cities that get the most snow each year.

But of course none of these comes close to Valdez’s 324 inches per year, or the various ski resorts, ranger stations, and mountain passes that receive far more snow than that.