A student adds a pop of Cornell red to the Arts Quad during a winter snowfall

The Cold Comforts of a Big Red Winter, Then and Now

Embracing the inevitable, Cornellians takes a lighthearted look at East Hill’s weather woes and wonders, past and present

Ithacation [ith-uh-KAY-shen]

Noun: 1) A hybrid type of precipitation—usually a mixture of snow, hail, rain, and slush—accompanied by gloomy skies and bone-chilling cold, endemic to Ithaca, New York; 2) a favorite topic among Cornellians.

For as long as the University has been standing high above Cayuga’s waters, Cornellians have been complaining about Ithaca winters, which can take on different personalities within a day, or even over the course of an hour.

Aerial view of a snow-covered Arts Quad
Aerial view of a snow-covered Arts Quad. (Photo: Cornell University)

Depending on your perspective, this can be seen as a challenge, a game of chance—or, if you’re meteorologist Drew Montreuil, MS ’15, a scientific delight.

“One of the most unique—and, from my point of view, the coolest—things about Cornell and Ithaca when it comes to the weather is how vastly different it can be from downtown to campus and up in the hills,” says Montreuil, a Tompkins County native who holds a master’s in earth and atmospheric sciences and runs the popular Finger Lakes Weather site. “But from a forecasting point of view, it can be a pain.”

One of the biggest quirks, he says, “is the lake effect, and how one minute it can be sunny out, and then you fast forward five minutes, and you can’t see across the street. Obviously, that can have a big impact on people, road crews, commuters, and just getting around and staying safe.”

So what makes Ithaca’s weather so … particular?

One factor is the hills and valleys of the Finger Lakes, as well as the lakes themselves. The largest ones—like Cayuga—are deep enough that they almost never completely freeze over in the winter. “And we’ve got the Great Lakes on top of that,” Montreuil adds. The five huge freshwater bodies—spanning more than 750 miles from west to east, with Lake Ontario only about 70 miles north of Ithaca—have an outsized effect on the region’s climate.

small snow sculpture on ledge by Ho Plaza
Snow creations of all sizes often make surprise appearances. (Photo: Cornell University)

“In the winter, they give us a lot of snow, and they make it really cloudy all the time,” Montreuil says. “But they also keep us a lot warmer than we would be otherwise.” Sans the Great Lakes, he says, our weather “would be a lot more like Minnesota.” 

What’s the forecast for winter 2021–22? According to publications like the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the U.S. is in for a “season of shivers”—and Upstate New York is in for very cold temperatures, though perhaps drier conditions than usual. 

And as for Montreuil? He tends to avoid making broad predictions—and notes that dire weather warnings are sometimes inflated to garner headlines and page views. “The Climate Prediction Center has us looking at higher chances for above average temperatures, with near-average precipitation for December, January, February, and March,” he says. “If I had to put my chips anywhere, I’d place my bets with them.” 

Read on for a flash-frozen sampler of some of Cornell’s winter-related lore, stats, tips, memories, and more.

Shovel ready

Cornell grounds staff shovel a stairway on campus
Grounds staff at work. (Photo provided by Dan Schied)

Each time it snows or ices up, the University’s grounds crew tackles the clearing of some 15 miles of roads, 61 miles of sidewalks and walkways, and 114 acres of parking lots.

Over the course of a typical winter, says grounds director Dan Schied, staff distribute more than 2,500 tons of salt on roads and pathways. It’s not a straightforward task: as the mercury drops, road salt gets dramatically less effective. At 30 °F, for example, a pound of salt can melt 46 pounds of ice—but at 10 °F, it can barely melt five pounds, and takes more than 10 times longer to do so.

These days, grounds staff are metering out salt more precisely, with the aim of using less; they’re also testing other compounds to pre-treat/anti-ice walkways and roads. And, as always with weather, timing is everything.

“If it stops snowing at two o’clock in the morning, and we can get ahead of the students and traffic, everything is golden,” Schied says. “But if it’s snowing during the day and we’re trying to plow while there are students on campus, you can imagine how slow we have to go.”

graphic shows coldest, warmest, average winter temperatures and extremes for Cornell and Ithaca
(Illustration: Cornell University; data provided by Mark Wysocki)

Winter newbies

Given that Cornell draws students from all over the world—including much warmer climes—the snow and chilly temperatures that strike toward the end of fall semester can come as a bit of a shock to some. Just ask Lordina Amoako ’23, a Hotelie who hails from Ghana.

“The first time I saw snow was one afternoon freshman year, on my way back from the Ag Quad,” recalls Amoako, who promptly called her siblings and tried to give them a sense of what she was experiencing via video chat. “I saw these white flurries coming down from the sky and they were everywhere. What struck me the most was that it did not produce any sound. I am used to rain, and rain makes a lot of sound, so it was very strange to me.”

I saw these white flurries coming down from the sky and they were everywhere. What struck me the most was that it did not produce any sound.

Lordina Amoako ’23

Like many international students, Amoako soon learned that what she’d earmarked as winter gear was really only appropriate for fall; luckily, friends helped her shop for everything she needs to stay toasty. “I like the snow, now that I am warm and do not freeze,” she says. “But sometimes when it’s still snowing in April or May, I just want it to end.” 

Blades of glory

More than a century ago, when Cayuga Lake completely froze over in the winter of 1911–12, Floyd “Flood” Newman 1912 and four friends decided to take advantage of the opportunity. They skated from the lake’s southern tip in Ithaca all the way to the northern end—roughly forty miles—before hopping on a train back home. Flood’s skates are now on display in Helen Newman Hall (which he endowed, along with Newman Lab and Newman Arboretum).

The Beebe Lake rhino

As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes: one winter morning in the 1920s, Cornellians were surprised to find a set of large animal tracks leading across campus to a hole in the frozen lake, where the creature appeared to have fallen in and drowned. A zoologist examined the prints and determined that they belonged to a rhinoceros.

Footage from 1929 includes the Arts Quad, the Suspension Bridge, horse-drawn plows—and attempts at skiing. (Video: Cornell University archives)

At the time, the lake was the source of most of the drinking water on campus and many people refused to partake of it; those who did claimed it had a distinctly rhino-like aftertaste. The tracks turned out to be the work of infamous prankster Hugh Troy ’26, who appropriated a professor’s trash can—made from an actual rhino leg—to fake the footprints.

Walk like a (Big Red) penguin

Cornell’s hilly roads and winding pathways—combined with its sometimes-unpredictable weather—spurred the creation of a web page of resources for winter safety that features advice, a hotline to report issues, and downloadable posters.

They include a flyer advocating the “penguin walk” for better stability. Emblazoned with a cute mascot wearing a “C,” it suggests such techniques as walking flat footed; pointing your feet slightly outward; taking short, shuffling steps; and keeping your arms at your sides rather than in your pockets. 

graphic shows snowiest, least snowy, and average winter snow accumulations for Cornell and Ithaca
(Illustration: Cornell University; data provided by Mark Wysocki)

The Blizzard of ’93

Until fairly recently, Cornell had a reputation for staying open even during the kind of nasty weather that would close schools and offices around Tompkins County—but a historic blizzard in 1993 actu­ally forced it to shut down.

At the time, Matthew Hammond ’91 was working as the opening supervisor at Robert Purcell dining and living a couple of miles away in the Village of Cayuga Heights.

Three students in red hats enjoy a fun moment in the snowy outdoors
Enjoying the outdoors. (Photo: Cornell University)

“The University closed, but of course the students in the dorms had to eat, so dining didn’t close,” recalls Hammond, a government and history major who’s now an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The county closed the roads—so Hammond had to get creative. “I borrowed my housemate’s cross-country skis and got up at four to ski into work,” he says. “It was just me and the snow plows.”

The storm, which dumped thirty inches of snow on East Hill, also looms large in the memory of Peter Salino ’79, retired director of Cornell’s grounds department, where he worked for 27 years. “I called Cornell Dining to ask them to bring us some food, and building care to get some cots for my crew,” Salino, a former environmental science major recalls. “I didn’t get home for three or four days.” 

Sage Hall is framed by icicles hanging from the seventh floor of Olin Library
Sage Hall is framed by icicles hanging from Olin Library. (Photo: Cornell University)

Icicles 101

New York state climatologist Mark Wysocki, MS ’89, a senior lecturer in earth and atmospheric sciences, offers a primer on the photogenic phenomenon, of which Ithaca often seems to have a bumper crop each season during freeze-and-thaw temperature swings.

“If you don’t have good insulation in your attic, heat will rise up through the ceiling, warm the roof, and melt the ice,” he explains. “And if you don’t clear your gutters of the leaves from the autumn, then the water backs up, overflows, and freezes in the air as it drips off.” 

A glimpse of winter color in the Mullestein Winter Garden at the Cornell Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens’ Mullestein Winter Garden provides seasonal color, texture, and shape to the winter landscape. It boasts more than 550 plants selected for their ornamental characteristics: beautiful bark, colorful twigs, sculptural branching, and varied form. (Photo: Cornell University)

Entertainment on ice

Up until the late Forties, when Beebe Lake stopped freezing over consistently each year (and University safety standards and risk management concerns were likely less stringent), annual ice carnivals were held on its solid surface. Hundreds of people would attend to skate, hear bands, and enjoy refreshments in the warming sheds.

Toboggan runs on the southern shore sent riders careening across the frozen lake and “broken arms and legs were not uncommon,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14, speculating that many of the injuries stemmed from collisions. Until Lynah Rink was constructed in 1957, Big Red hockey teams played on Beebe, cleared by horse-drawn “zambonis” that would drag plow-like equipment across the lake to pick up ice shavings.

dozens of skaters are pictured ice skating on Beebe Lake in the early 1900s
Ice skating on Beebe Lake, early 1900s. (Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“On Saturday afternoons in winter, if skating is good, and the weather is just a wee bit mild and sunshiny, one is always sure of finding a great crowd assembled at Beebe,” states O.D. von Engeln, a professor of geology, in the 1918 edition of Concerning Cornell. “The graceful evolutions of the skaters and the mad rushes of the hockey players furnish a sight both pretty and thrilling, one that invites even the most sluggish soul to participation.”

Top image: A student adds a pop of Cornell red to the Arts Quad during a snowfall. (Photo: Cornell University)

Published: December 2, 2021


  1. Barbara Hankins, Class of 1954

    My biggest memory of the snowy campus was walking to an 8 o’clock from Clara Dickson to then Food Science building on the Ag campus my freshman year. For some reason, Saturday mornings were particularly difficult! Women wore skirts and knee socks in those days. My knees turned red during the winter.

  2. Jane Parkinson, Class of 1981

    I don’t remember exactly which winter this happened, but it had to have been either the winter of 1978, 1979, or 1980. A huge icicle formed in the Fall Creek Gorge just below the bridge on North Campus. It grew bigger every day. I believe people were making bets on when it would finally break off and fall into the gorge.

  3. Tom Bantle, Class of 1974

    The Cornell Daily Sun prank edition my freshman year had an article that all Work/Study students would be assigned to shovel Libe Slope and other sidewalks.

  4. Michaline (Spina) Bruyninckx, Class of 1979

    I remember snow in May 1978(?). All the tulips were covered!

    • Jon Sundquist, Class of 1982

      It must have been 1977 (I didn’t arrive on campus until 1978). It famously snowed on the day of the May 8, 1977 Grateful Dead concert.

    • Jon Hrbek, Class of 1979

      Yes Spina, I remember that too, although I think it was 1977. And wasn’t the first day of finals postponed then too, because of all that snow? I also remember that the study week just before was just perfect weather.

  5. Anne Powell, Class of 1966

    Since I grew up in Ithaca, when I went to Cornell I was surprised by how many comments other students made about the “awful” weather (including the seemingly unending periods of cloudy days). As an Ithacan, I was used to it, of course. For the last 50 years, I have lived in Shelburne, Vermont, just south of Burlington on the shores of Lake Champlain…and I feel completely at home with the weather here since it is almost identical to Ithaca’s (including the very familiar large number of cloudy days). The common factors for both locations of being next to a large lake and having a hilly topography explain the twin weather characteristics of the two spots.

  6. Bill Landberg, Class of 1973

    Richard Feynman the Nobel laureate said he left Cornell for CalTech because he was tired of having to deal with the snow.

  7. Gregory Moore, Class of 1983

    I remember people would take food trays from the cafeteria in Willard Straight and use them as mini sleds down the big hill from McGraw and Arts Quad down toward dorms.

  8. geoffrey hewitt, Class of 1979

    I was in graduate school in the late 1970s and lived in a graduate dorm known as Sage Hall. I do not think it had been renovated for decades. It had clanking steam heat and poor water pressure but I was there for an excellent education which I am to this day very grateful. Now most students live in beautiful accommodations.

    • Amy (Fuchs) Nutig

      Sage was an undergrad dorm in 92-93. I lived there for a few weeks and will never forget the ancient bathrooms. The wiring must have been almost as old – my roommate had a mini fridge, and every time the compressor turned over our lights would go out.

  9. Dexter Wang, Class of 1969

    I was a freshman living in North Baker. I remember a storm in 1966 where we were jumping out of second floor windows onto drifts that almost reached the window, and then sliding down to the ground. During the winter of 1970 I remember scraping snow off my windshield for 30 consecutive mornings.

  10. Karen Kalista Green

    During the blizzard of ‘93, I remember seeing people celebrate the day off from classes by using cardboard, trays, mattresses – anything they could find – to sled down Buffalo St. in Collegetown.

  11. Kim Eike, Class of 1969

    If my memory is somewhat accurate, Fall term finals (which were in January of 1966) were postponed for one day by a lot of snow.

    • Mary Ames, Class of 1969

      I remember that, too, Kim. My recollection is that we got about three feet of snow during the day and night of January 31. My memory may be off, but I’m fairly sure, because my birthday is February 1, and I thought of that one-day reprieve from finals as the world’s best gift.

  12. Gail Colin Leibovich, Class of 1962

    In my freshman year on a bitter cold morning, a friend and I were walking from Clara Dickson to Stimson Hall for an 8:00 zoology class. We had to wear skirts on campus in those days. Knee socks helped a bit but above the knee skirts were the fashion. All the way there, my friend kept saying “It’s so cold that i feel like I have pins and needles in my knees.” When we got to class and sat down, we could see that her knees were covered in blood spots. Turns out she had hemmed her skirt the night before and had left some straight pins in the hem! We found out later that the temperature was -20 degrees at 7:30am.

  13. Seymour R Rosen MD, Class of 1964

    I remember crossing University Ave on Feb 2, 1961. The temperature was -25F, every breath I took felt like my nose and mouth were freezing; a motorist stopped and said it was too cold to walk to class so he gave me a lift to my 8am class; I understand the temperature that day set a record low for Ithaca.

  14. Michael S. Schenker, Class of 1968

    During 1966-67 I was living in an apartment in Cayuga Heights (I am still friends with my roommates) and my car was parked outside. Early in the morning I went out and started the car (miracle #1), released the parking brake (miracle #2), and started to drive out of the parking spot. The problem was that I could not stop; apparently brake fluid is not very fluid at -22F.

  15. Martin Root, Class of 1973

    One morning in Spring ’71 I woke to ankle-deep snow and more coming and an 8:00 Organic Lab in Baker. I was one of the few students in attendance. Halfway through class we learned that classes were cancelled and I walked back to Mennen Hall through knee-deep snow. Many years later as an employee in ’93, I got stuck in that blizzard in Varna on the way home as we learned that the county had closed the roads. Our car was stuck at the bottom of the Varna hill. Fortunately a friend with 4-wheel drive came by and got us safely home.

  16. Andrew E Hospador, Class of 1962

    Thanksgiving ’58 it snowed so hard that when we threw a red Frisbee it disappeared into and reappeared out of the snowfall. My recollection is we got 24 inches in that storm.

  17. Dianne Gwynn Berger, Class of 1972

    I trugded through the snow on the old path from Forest Home along Beebe lake to my 8:00 AM Statistics Final Exam in the Ag School, only to have some official announce at 8:00 that campus was closed for the day. It was Dec 1970 or Jan 1971. After fighting my way back to Judd Falls Rd. I crawled back into bed.

    The exam was rescheduled and I did very well, thank you.

  18. Maureen McCafferty Stanton, Class of 1996

    I remember trudging from Founders Hall to Jansens through waist-high snow during the Blizzard of’93. We found only cereal and some very dedicated employees inside.

  19. Terrell E. Koken, Class of 1962

    In winter of ’58-’59 we more than decimated the Straight’s supply of lunch trays on Libe slope. Tray-sliding was a real whoop, and the University placed hay bales around all the road signs at the bottom of the slope and closed the road, mainly to keep students from killing or maiming themselves. At the bottom of the slope there was usually a heavy shock as you passed over the curb, often accompanied by the disintegration of your tray.

    I don’t remember seeing a lot of tray fragments when the thaw came; they were probably picked up by diligent safety personnel.

  20. Victor Carfi, Class of 1980

    I was a sophomore during the winter of ’78-’79 when we had over 100 inches of snow. It was a very, very bad year for me to live 4 miles off campus (near the airport) without a car.

  21. Doug Wright, Class of 1969

    Kim is right and I recall further that two of my finals in May of ’66 were postponed two days because of an 8 or 9 inch snowfall – IN MAY!

  22. Barb Bachle Bleaking, Class of 1980

    One year, it must have been 1978 or 1979 I trudged from North Campus to the ILR school for a 9 am class when it was -26 degrees. Only 3 students showed up. The professor gave us all As for coming out in such frightful weather.

  23. Paula Naomi Friedman, Class of 1960

    Cornell winters made me love snow. I remember waking early,in December of freshman year, in Clara Dickson Hall and seeing acres and acres of snow, the whole way to Beebe Lake, glowing pink from the rising sun. The next winter, 1957-1958, my friend Alice and I dressed in warm slacks, sweaters, and our heaviest coats to shelter among snow-covered bushes and watch the Northern Lights, a phenomenon I’m so grateful to have seen.

  24. Michael H Gilman DVM, Class of 1956

    I am a Cornell 56 DVM grad and I was so occupied with struggling thru my six years of Cornell U getting a Degree that
    I never got time to be involved in any of the shenanigans mentioned in any
    Remarks Made by my fellow or other
    I am happy to have survived this arduous adventure and now am happy
    To be retired and able to chuckle over the whole thing ! Thank you Cornell!!!

  25. Richard Warshauer, Class of 1971

    I remember the Blizzard of 1971, all too well. I walked from my apartment in Cayuga Heights to campus, only to learn all classes were cancelled.
    When I walked back, every muscle in my body ached.
    My landlady, the late Prof. Wanderstock’s widow, took pity and lent me her Vicks Vaporub.

  26. Eric Key, Class of 1977

    The two winters I remember were December 1973 when there was a storm that caused Tompkins County to close all the roads, and my new found buddies in UHall 4 trekked up to Community Corners and back, and the winter of 77-78 when there was about 120 inches of snow, and you couldn’t see the the Number 9 firehouse from the sidewalk on the opposite side of College Ave, just the lights flashing red on the snowbanks as the truck rolled by.

  27. Don Schwartz

    I came to a faculty appointment at Cornell from a similar position at North Dakota State University (and am a native North Dakotan). I smiled at student complaints about Ithaca winters and had to repress my urge to say “Let me tell you about REAL winters…”. I honed my response down to, “Well at least it melts here. In ND it blows around on the ground all winter until Spring when it finally wears out.”

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