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Spokane, Washington
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November 19, 1996 Ice Storm: 10 year Anniversary
National Weather Service, Spokane, WA
A devastating ice storm brought much of Spokane and Kootenai Counties to a virtual standstill on November 19, 1996 and for weeks following the event. Spokane was among the hardest hit areas. Up to an inch of ice was deposited or accreted on trees, roads, buildings, vehicles, etc. The severe ice storm resulted in 4 fatalities and damages were estimated at over 22 million dollars. Needless to say, transportation corridors were adversely affected, many structures collapsed or were otherwise severely damaged and businesses and schools were shut down for weeks. Over 100,00 homes and businesses lost power, and many people were without power for up to two weeks. It remains one of the most severe ice storms on record.
1996 Ice Storm
1996 Ice Storm
photo courtesy of the Spokesman-Review
1996 Ice Storm
1996 Ice Storm

Anatomy of an Ice Storm

Ice storms are the result of freezing rain, which initially develops in the form of snow well above the ground. As they fall, the snowflakes pass through a layer of "relatively" warm air that is deep enough to cause them to melt and become rain drops. As the rain drops continue to fall, they encounter sub-freezing temperatures just above the surface and rapidly cool to a temperature just below freezing. However, the rain drops do not actually freeze but rather become "supercooled." Once the supercooled rain drops strike objects like power lines, trees, buildings, etc. at the surface where temperatures are below freezing they freeze instantaneously. This is what is referred to as freezing rain.

During the November 1996 ice storm, the base of the warm layer was approximately 1500 feet AGL and extended up to 6500 feet AGL, or just under a mile deep. The temperature within this warm layer peaked around 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius), while surface temperatures hovered in the upper 20s.

The official weather station at Spokane International Airport measured 0.88 inches of precipitation on November 19, 1996, most of which was in the form of freezing rain. Although a little rough, the images below depict the temperature profiles over Spokane on November 19th. Note the striking contrast between the temperature profile at 4am at 4pm just above the surface.

1996 Ice Storm
photo courtesy of NWS Spokane

Temperatures over Spokane at 4pm PST on 11/19/96
Temperature Profile
Temperature Profile
Skew-T Plot

Will it be Snow, Sleet or Freezing Rain?

Among the greatest challenges NWS forecasters face during the winter months is determining precipitation type. Will it fall as freezing rain or snow? Weather balloons, launched twice daily from the NWS office in Spokane, are a crucial component of the decision making process. They provide measurements of temperature, pressure, and wind above the surface. Based on the vertical temperature profile, for example, a forecaster can determine if conditions are more likely to result in snow or freezing rain.




Freezing Rain

  • Flurries : Light snow falling for short durations. No accumulation or light dusting is all that is expected.
  • Showers : Snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.
  • Squalls : Brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant. 
  • Blowing Snow: Wind driven-snow that reduces visibility and causes significant drifting. Blowing snow may be snow that is falling and/or loose snow on the
    ground that is picked up by the wind.
  • Blizzard : Winds over 35 mph with snow and blowing snow reducing visibility to near zero.
  • Rain drops that freeze into ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and does not stick to objects. However, it can accumulate like snow and cause a hazard to motorist.
  • Rain that falls onto a surface with a temperature below freezing. This causes it to freeze to surfaces, such as trees, cars, and roads, forming a coating or glaze of ice. Even small accumulations of ice can cause a significant hazard.

Snow Profile

Freezing Rain Profile

Graphics above courtesy of NWS JetStream Online Weather School

What rules or winter weather skills will help keep me safe?

  1. Be prepared.  Take action before the first winter storm to winterize automobiles and prepare emergency survival kits. At home, stock up on food, fuels, first-aid an medical items and other supplies such as batteries for flashlights and radios. Don't forget to check fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.
  2. Keep up with the latest forecasts and statements from the National Weather Service. Always check the latest forecast before going into mountain areas and don't leave that radio or portable TV behind which could provide weather forecast updates.
  3. If possible, avoid travel during winter storms.. If you must travel immediately before or during a storm, try not to travel alone. Let someone know your travel schedule and routes. If stranded while traveling, it is best to stay with your vehicle. You can be more at risk trying to walk through the storm for help. In some instances, people have died trying to go less than 1/2 mile for help. Make your vehicle as visible as possible for easier rescue.  You can periodically run the motor for short periods each hour, but remember to allow fresh air and ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.  When hiking, hunting, skiing, or if your job takes you into mountainous areas, know the weather forecast! Take along extra clothes, food or supplies that could save your life.  If stranded overnight, learn survival techniques for shelter and fire making.
  4. For more information, check out the following brochure "Winter Storms: The Deceptive Killers".

Remember, be prepared in advanced and ready to handle sudden changes during any wintertime travel or outdoor activity.

Around the Home

  • Keep ahead of advancing winter weather by listening to NOAA Weather Radio.
  • A powerful winter storm will take down power lines knocking out electricity. Check battery powered equipment before the storm arrives.
  • Check your food and stock an extra supply. Include food that requires no cooking in case of power failure. If there are infants or people who need special medication at home, make sure you have a supply of the proper food and medicine. Make sure pets and animals have shelter and a water supply.
  • If appropriate, check your supply of propane. Fuel carriers may not be able to reach you due to closed roads.
  • Be careful when using fireplace, stoves, or space heaters. Proper ventilation is essential to avoid a deadly build-up of carbon monoxide. Don't use charcoal inside as it gives off large amounts of carbon monoxide. Keep flammable material away from space heaters and do not overload electric circuits.
  • Dress for the conditions when outdoors. Wear several layers of light-weight, warn clothing: layers can be removed to prevent perspiring and subsequent chill. Outer garments should be tightly woven, waterproof and hooded. For the hands, mittens, snub at the wrists, offer better protection than fingered gloves.
  • Don't kill yourself shoveling snow. It is extremely hard work for anyone in less than prime physical condition. It can bring on a heart attack, a major cause of death during and after winter storms.


  • Your automobile can be your best friend or worst enemy during winter storms. Get your car winterized before winter arrives. The following items should be checked; ignition system, cooling system, fuel system, battery, lights, tires, heater, brakes, wipers, defroster, oil, exhaust. Keep water out of your fuel tank by keeping it full.
  • If you travel often during winter, carry a winter storm kit in you car. It should include; flashlight, windshield scraper, paper towels, extra clothes, matches/candles, booster cables, compass, maps, sand, chains, blankets, high calorie non-perishable food.
  • Winter travel by car is serious business. If the storm exceeds or tests your driving ability, seek available shelter immediately.
  • Plan your travel. Try not to travel alone and drive in convoy when possible.
  • Drive carefully and defensively. Pump your breaks when trying to stop on snow or ice covered roads.

Winter Safety for Schools

  • Children can be especially susceptible to the dangers associated with winter weather. Their youthful enthusiasm often takes over when common sense should prevail.
  • School administrators and principals need to be sensitive to the dangers winter weather can pose to children and be prepared. Winter weather procedures and practices need to be established before the onset of winter cold. The following items should be considered when formulating a winter weather safety plan:
  •  All schools should have ready access to current weather information. If the school is in a county covered by NOAA Weather Radio, that would be the best source. Commercial media can also be monitored. Arrangements can also be made with local law enforcement agencies to have critical winter weather forecasts relayed to the school.
  • All schools need to have a functional plan in regard to closures due to snow, ice, or extreme cold.
  • During the winter months, guidelines need to be established regarding outside recess. Temperatures and wind chills need to be monitored and criteria set as to when outside recess will be allowed.
  • School bus drivers should receive extra training on driving during winter weather. Snow and ice can often accumulate quickly and unexpectedly on roads creating dangerous driving conditions.
  • With many households having two working parents today, it may be necessary for some children to be brought to school early. Schools should make provisions to allow children inside school buildings as early as possible during cold weather.


US Dept of Commerce
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Weather Service
Spokane Weather Forecast Office
2601 N. Rambo Rd.
Spokane, Washington 99224

Tel: (509) 244-0110

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