Words on Weather & Climate — September 23, 2010

The Weather Ain’t Like it Used to Be


How many times have you heard someone say, “The weather ain’t like it used to be”? And I always say, “It definitely isn’t. The climate is always changing.” We all seem to have selective memory about the past, but we are told now that weather extremes are worse than ever. Is that so? Let’s take a look a few weather extremes I imagine most people are unaware of that happened in the United States. The 19th century (1800s) saw many extreme weather events in this county but let’s look specifically at the years 1888, 1896 and 1899.

Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

There were two incredible storms in 1888. The first occurred in the Plains and Midwest January 12-13. It is still the worst blizzard of record in Nebraska. Most school children were trapped at school for days. In 24 hours, the temperature fell from 70 degrees to almost 40 below zero. The wind at times was so strong you could not hear voices 6 feet away. Many cattle suffocated due to the fine powdery snow being blown into their nostrils.

The second great storm occurred March 11-14, 1888, and has become known as “The Great White Hurricane” or “The Blizzard of 88” that paralyzed areas from Chesapeake Bay to Maine with New York City being hit the hardest.

New York City papers reported that in 36 hours: “the snow had fallen to depths of between two to five feet, with drifts piling up over fifteen to thirty feet in many sections of the city.” In some western suburbs, snowdrifts were reported to be as high as 50 feet! Transportation collapsed. Trains on all four of the city’s lines stalled, leaving 15,000 passengers helpless in unheated cars. Trolleys were blown off their tracks in wind gusts estimated over 75 mph. There hasn’t been a storm of that magnitude since.

In 1896, there was a brutal heat wave from the Plains to the East Coast. Theodore Roosevelt, then head of the Board of Police Commissioners in New York City wrote: “the death rate trebled until it approached the level of a cholera epidemic; horses died by the hundreds.” Although official high temperatures were mainly in the 90s, the humidity was very high and nighttime temperatures did not cool off. It was estimated that temperatures in brick tenement buildings in the city’s Lower East Side easily reached 120 degrees. Approximately 1500 people died in New York City alone from the heat wave. 

Just 3 years later, in February 1899, the worst cold wave ever recorded in the United States began in the Pacific Northwest. There was actually a series of 3 cold fronts during the first half of the month that spread cold from the Yukon to Cuba and produced snow all the way into south Florida. Every one of the current 48 states reported temperatures below zero at least once that month, including Florida. The details are fascinating: 

On the 4th of the month, temperatures fell to 9 degrees in Portland, Oregon, 33 in Los Angeles, 34 in San Diego and 24 in Phoenix. The second cold front on the 9th brought below zero temperature readings to half the U.S. as far south as Oklahoma and Virginia. 

The third and strongest front mid month produced temperatures as low as 7 in New Orleans and 2 below zero in Pensacola, Florida. Measurable snow was on the ground as far south as Lakeland and Tampa, Florida with flurries to Miami. Snowfalls of 2 to 3 feet preceded the cold along the East Coast. On the 14th, Grand Rapids reported its coldest temperature ever of 24 below zero with many outlying areas colder than 30 below zero. In the Midwest, all seven states, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, still rank the February 1899 cold as the coldest four days on record. The cold has never been matched in at least 44 cities in the south. 

All navigation was halted on the Mississippi River for days and in some places all month. On the 17th, ice on the river was 2 inches thick at New Orleans. The ice flowed into the Gulf of Mexico damaging many boats and killing wildlife.

An amazing warm up began in the following weeks, with high temperatures reaching 80 to nearly 90 degrees higher than earlier lows in the month. Washington D.C. had three feet of snow on the ground on the 15th but by a week later on the 22nd, it had all melted. 

No, the weather ain’t like it used to be.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He has also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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