March madness: Chicago's worst spring snowstorms

Some flurries flew on Monday, and we may get more than flurries by Friday, but nobody should complain. It could be a lot worse in March. 

March got off to a mild start. We saw 16 straight days with above-average temperatures. Our colder pattern this week will bring us back to reality. Even with a cold couple of days already this week, we are still running more than 9 degrees above average for the month.

Chicagoans know not to let their guard down this time of the year. March is actually the 4th snowiest month of the year, with an average of 5.5 inches of the white stuff. Two of the top ten worst snowstorms on record for Chicago occurred during the month of March.

Chicago's top ten worst snowstorms:

1. 23.0 inches Jan 26-27, 1967
2. 21.6 inches Jan 1-3, 1999
3. 21.2 inches Feb. 1-2, 2011
4. 20.3 inches Jan 13-14, 1979
5. 19.3 inches Feb. 1-2, 2015
6. 19.2 inches Mar 25-26, 1930
7. 16.2 inches Mar 7-8, 1931
8. 15.0 inches Dec 17-20, 1929
9. 14.9 inches Jan 30, 1939
10. 14.9 inches Jan 6-7, 1918

Here is a summary of some of the worst snowstorms to hit during March:

#1 March 25-26, 1930

Chicago Evening American, March 28, 1930

The headline in the Chicago Evening American called it "Chicago's Greatest Snowstorm." There have been worse storms since, but at the time, this was the city's worst on record. It lasted two days and dumped just over 19 inches of snow on the city.

Chicago Evening American, March 28, 1930

The National Weather Service office at the time was at the University of Chicago. They reported drifts of up to 5 feet throughout the city. The storm lasted just under 44 hours. The official snow tally of 19.2 inches was 4.3 inches more than the previous worst snowstorm in the city that occurred back on January 6-7, 1918. 

The combination of heavy snow and 40 to 50 mph winds paralyzed the city. Midway airport was slammed with over 22 inches of snow, and some roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow. It was another case of weather whiplash for Chicago residents. About a week prior to the storm, Chicago was basking in 70-degree weather.

Despite the challenging conditions, the show still went on at Orchestra Hall. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed even without an audience in attendance. The storm now takes the #6 spot on the top ten list of Chicago's worst snowstorms.

#2 March 7-8, 1931

16.2 inches (March 7-8, 1931) — 7th largest

The second-worst March snowstorm was just three inches shy of the worst storm for the month that occurred about a year prior, in 1930. The 1931 storm, which landed at #2 on this list, produced 16.2 inches of snow. It ranks #7 on Chicago's all-time worst snowstorm list.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune headline stated, "20,000 Dig City Out Of Snow". Most of the help came from men who had not worked for months because of the Great Depression.

#3 March 5, 2013

Snowfall totals from March 5, 2013 storm.

We have to fast-forward 82 years to get to #3.  The March 5th storm of 2013 squeezed out 9.2 inches at O'Hare Airport. It was the most snowfall from one event during the entire snowfall season that winter and the first 6" or more snowfall in Chicago since the February 1-2, 2011 blizzard.

The winter leading up to the storm barely had any snow through the first two-thirds of the season. Just 3.5 inches of snow fell through January 31st that winter. The storm brought the season total up to 29.5", just 1.2" below average as of March 6th. It broke the record for snowfall on that date and was the fourth-largest March single-day snowfall at the time.

Here are some of the impressive snowfall amounts from the storm:

11.8" Homer Glenn

11.7" Yorkville

11.3" Orland Park

10.1" Elgin

10" Palos Park

9.9" Riverside

9.6" Midway

9.3" Downers Grove

#4 March 9-10, 2023

This storm only produced 1.2 inches of snow at O'Hare, but I included it on the list because it was so recent and more prolific in places northwest of the city. This storm began on Thursday, March 9th, with a mix of snow and rain and continued through the morning of Friday, March 10th. Portions of McHenry and Lake counties picked up between 6 and 9 inches of snow. Those amounts were impressive, considering the temperatures were at or just above freezing through the event. Had it been a few degrees colder, this storm could have produced twice the snowfall it did.

9.5" Woodstock

9.1" Harvard

7.8" Crystal Lake

6.5" Antioch

6.0" Lake Zurich

#5 March 12-15, 2017

Last but not least is the heavy lake effect snow event that happened seven years ago. An initial quick-moving system laid down a coating of snow starting Sunday night, March 12, and continued into early Monday, March 13. The first swath of snow was fairly widespread, but then lake effect snow started Monday night, March 13, and lingered into Tuesday, March 14. Bands of lake effect snow targeted northeast Illinois for a long period of time. This was unusual since northwest Indiana and Michigan tend to be the areas more favored for lake effect snow. 

O'Hare picked up 7.7 inches in total, with 5.2 inches of that in the form of lake-effect snow. The storm had two different types of snow, but if it is considered one event, it was the largest March snowfall in Chicago since the 2013 storm, which is #3 on this list. Snowfall rates reached 2 to 4 inches per hour at times in harder-hit locations.

Here are some snowfall totals from this event:

16.1" Waukegan

13.2" Lincolnshire,

12.5" Gurnee

12.4" Mundelein

10.5" Homewood

10.5" Botanic Gardens

9.3" Midway Airport