Forty years ago this week, the atmosphere rose like a tent pole off the coast of California, pushing high pressure deep into the frigid reaches of northern Canada and sending potent arctic air plummeting to the tropics.
The unusual pattern turned the polar jet stream into a twisting river of powerful winds sweeping south over the warm Gulf of Mexico and into South Florida where climate history was made.
On the morning of Jan. 19, 1977, snow fell in Palm Beach County.
It was the day before a peanut farmer would be inaugurated as the 39th president of the United States — a time before weather events were politicized, analyzed, dissected, sucked dry of magic and wonder.
In 1977, it was just snow in South Florida, and it was enchanting.
“We were up for school and I happened to look outside and then all heck broke lose,” remembered Pam Sykes, who was 8 years old when she spotted the flakes in Lake Worth. “Everyone came out of their houses and were yelling on the street that it was snowing.”
The snow that day had an icy reach as far south as Homestead Air Force Base — the farthest south snow has been recorded in the contiguous U.S. It spread west to Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama, which is the only instance of snow being observed in the history of the Bahamas, according to the Florida climate Center.
Previous to Jan. 19, 1977, the farthest south snow had been seen was along a Fort Myers to Fort Pierce line in February 1899, according to the National Weather Service in Miami.
The snow was not a complete surprise to forecasters. It had been a bitterly cold few days with a front passing through on Jan. 16, followed by a second front two days later. Record-low temperatures were expected, freeze warnings were issued and spotty rain had meteorologists warning of icy roads.
Records kept by the National Weather Service in Miami show the first snowfall at Palm Beach International Airport was observed at 6:10 a.m. on Jan. 19.
Joe Vidulich was a 27-year-old meteorological technician at the federal weather office then stationed at the airport. He said he was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift on Jan. 19, and while snow was expected in Central and North Florida, he didn’t think it would make it to Palm Beach County and beyond.
“I went outside to take an observation and I noticed these particles flying by. At first I thought they were bugs, but it was snow,” Vidulich said. “I ran back inside so excited and my partner was sleeping in a chair. I said, ‘Wake up Bernie, it’s snowing.’ He said, ‘You must be drunk.’”
Vidulich sent a special alert via Teletype — the first snow recorded in West Palm Beach.
William Matthewman, a U.S. magistrate judge for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach, was a uniformed police officer for the City of Miami in January 1977. He was on patrol, and handling a traffic stop with some other officers. He remembers it was bitterly cold.
“All of a sudden, small flakes fell from the sky and started landing on the windshield of our cars and on our dark blue uniforms,” said Matthewman, who was born and raised in Miami. “Once we all realized it was snow, we were really amazed.”
Matthewman said he recalls the driver in the traffic stop got a “snow break” and no ticket.
Climatologically, it is not supposed to snow in South Florida. The laid back tropics are a region constantly gaining energy from the sun, and with Florida’s temperatures moderated by warm water on three sides, snow is unusual even in northern reaches of the state.
But in January 1977, all of the ingredients for frozen precipitation came together. The high pressure near California forced a mountainous ridge into Canada and a deep trough to dig through Florida, which funneled arctic air south. While winds at the surface were blowing from the north behind the cold front, winds high in the atmosphere at 5,000 feet were out of the west. That westerly wind picked up moisture from the Gulf.
At the same time, the freezing level in the atmosphere was at 1,500 feet above sea level, which is low for South Florida and kept the snow from melting before it hit the ground.
Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist with the Pennsylvania-based Accuweather, said the rare pattern is similar to lake-effect snow that forms over the great lakes.
“There was just so much deep cold air,” said Kottlowski, who watched the system progress. “I remember it was unheard of, snow in South Florida, and we haven’t seen snow there since then.”
The Florida Climate Center said that on Jan. 8 and 9, 2010 there were a few anecdotal reports of snow flurries in West Palm Beach, but no snow was recorded at any official weather stations.
The 1977 snow and freezing temperatures — the coldest morning was Jan. 20 when the low was 27 degrees in West Palm Beach — was not good for Florida’s farmers.
Temperatures over interior and western regions of South Florida were at or below freezing for 10 to 14 hours, and some locations were at or below 28 degrees for 4 to 8 hours, the Miami NWS reported.
Agricultural losses of $350 million were estimated statewide. Tangerine, tangelo and temple orange crops were heavily damaged.
Still, for those who looked to the sky in awe, it was a fleeting, but unforgettable moment frozen in time.
“We were sitting with our tongues sticking out trying to catch snowflakes as they fell,” said Carolyn Stone, who was 8 years old in January 1977 and is now director of athletics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “It was snow, it really was snow.”
South Floridians remember Jan. 19, 1977
• Larry Wright, of Pahokee, was 30 years old and living in Cleveland in 1977. In January that year he dug himself out of an Ohio snow storm to visit his parents in Pahokee. His father woke him up and said he should look outside. “Everyone was out in the street playing in the snow. I had a lot of fun that day and was telling people how I had just spent so much time shoveling snow and then it snowed in Pahokee.”
• Steve Sabac, of Boynton Beach, was 12 years old and living in Sunrise. He was in class when people banged on the door saying it was snowing. “It was coming down pretty good. I just remember everyone standing outside in the courtyard and recess areas and lookin up with the snow coming down.”
• Mitch Lubitz was 22 years old and working the night shift as a newsroom clerk at The Miami Herald. He said he started getting calls from readers insisting that snow was falling in parts of Miami-Dade County. After several calls, he alerted an editor who dismissed the amateur weather reports. But the calls persisted and someone called the National Weather Service, which confirmed the snow reports.
“Ironically, I was fielding calls and helping out with the reporting all night so I never got to see the historic snowfall.”
• Geoff Sluggett was a 15-year-old sophomore at Twin Lakes High School. He remembers standing at the bus stop at the corner of Westminster Road and Olive Avenue in the Prospect Park neighborhood when it started to snow. He ran home to tell his parents. “They didn’t believe me until I dragged them outside.”
• John Costello was a 29-year-old police officer for the City of Lake Worth. He said it was so cold the grease in the gears of traffic light boxes froze. Officers were called in to direct traffic until repairs were made. “I was at Lucerne Avenue and Dixie for several hours. Needless to say, I had a very cold day.”