Blizzards in the Upper Midwest

Copyright Lawrence Burkett 2015, minor rev. 2019


Early Blizzards

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, a few years after the first official blizzard impacted Iowa and Wisconsin in December 1876 (Wild 1997), a sequence of blizzards impacted parts of what was then the Dakota Territory from the fall of 1880 through the spring of 1881 as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her novel The Long Winter (Wilder 1940). In Wilder (1940), the lack of warnings caught many off guard leaving those outdoors at the peril of nature’s fury in blinding snow, snow drifts, and bitterly cold air. In the late 19th century in Dakota Territory, rail transportation was the primary means by which food and supplies were delivered to towns. In Laura’s case, the lack of snow removal equipment to clear a vital rail line between her town and larger towns and cities back east resulted in the seizure of rail transportation for months that would have otherwise delivered necessary items such as food, fuel, medical supplies, and materials needed to make warm clothing (Wilder 1940). In addition, Wilder (1940) indicated that most homes from that era and perhaps most buildings in general, were not built to withstand the wind and snow from blizzards. The dire result was snow being blown into her home from outside while cracks on the rooftop, presumably from a combination of wind-blown debris and snow loading, led to dripping water inside her home.

On January 12th, 1888, the Children’s Blizzard impacted part of the Dakotas and Minnesota following a snowstorm on January 7-8th that deposited a dusting of powdery snow over the region. The January 7-8th snowstorm was followed by a bitterly cold airmass before a rapid return to much warmer weather. At the onset of the blizzard, the air was warm enough to support outdoor activities. However, despite the warm airmass that had been in place early on January 12th, 1888, a cold front was reported to have “raced down the undefended grassland like a crack unstoppable army” through the morning and afternoon hours of January 12th, catching many off guard including numerous children (Laskin 2009, 1).

According to Laskin (2009), the severity of the blizzard on January 12th, 1888 in terms of loss of life and injuries was exacerbated by the lack of blizzard preparedness and warning in the 1880s. Blizzards were not very common in heavily populated places such as northeastern United States, Germany, and Norway, where many of the early pioneers had immigrated from to farm the prairies (Wild 1997). Also, during the 1880s, there had not yet been fences or trees planted to help retard wind and snow, and what warnings residents of the interior of United States might have had by agencies such as the United States Army’s Signal Service were limited, and in some cases taboo. Certain terms (e.g. tornado) may have caused panic if mentioned in warnings (Bradford 2001; Laskin 2009).

The White Hurricane of November 1913 produced blizzard conditions west to Minnesota even though it is regarded as primarily a Great Lakes event (Brown 2004). The impending blizzard was first noted in Minnesota on November 6th by weather observers employed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau (Brown 2004). By November 7th, blizzard conditions were reported across much of eastern Minnesota, and by November 8th winds were commonly in excess of 22.4 m s-1 (50 mi h-1) at Duluth with periods of heavy snowfall. By the time the blizzard had moved east of Minnesota on November 9th, damages occurred from Minnesota east through the Great Lakes including the sinking of numerous large sea-fairing vessels (Brown 2004).

The 1920 blizzard was one of the worst on record for North Dakota in particular. From March 15-18th, 1920, Henke (1998) reported that at least one rail corridor and most telephone services were severed, and that at least 34 people perished during the blizzard. Among those dead were several children who had ventured home from school (Henke 1998).

The Armistice Day Blizzard of November 11-12th, 1940 impacted portions of Minnesota and the Dakotas. In Minnesota, the Armistice’s Day Blizzard is regarded as one of the worst on record. According to Seeley (2006), the Armistice’s Day Blizzard occurred at a time when the Weather Bureau had been transferred from the United States Department of Agriculture to the United States Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce was responsible for large areas with interests in aviation versus agriculture. Nevertheless, weather forecasters at the large, U.S. Weather Bureau office in Chicago issued a moderate cold wave warning for Minnesota early on November 11th in advance of a northeasterly-moving cyclone centered in west Texas – and a southeasterly-moving anticyclone located in western Canada (Seeley 2006). By the afternoon hours on November 11th, the drizzle and rain that had started on November 10th had turned to sleet and snow across Minnesota as the low tracked from west Texas to Duluth and sustained winds increased to around 11.2 m s-1 (25 mi h-1) with gusts in excess of 26.8 m s-1 (60 mi h-1) (Seeley 2006). By late November 11th, blizzard conditions covered much of Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas with snowfall rates close to four inches per hour (Seeley 2006). During the blizzard, numerous utility lines snapped and most rail lines and roads became impassable. When the blizzard was over the following day, thousands of game birds and livestock died, and at least 49 people from Minnesota perished (Seeley 2006). The Armistice Blizzard and another blizzard the following March resulted in the Governor of Minnesota and Congress to call for better warnings from the U.S. Weather Bureau. This push led to the first United States Weather Bureau office being opened in Minnesota a short time later (Seeley 2006).

In early March 1966, a blizzard impacted parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota. According to Storm Data, extensive blowing and drifting snow paralyzed the region for several days, even though temperatures did not drop sharply during the blizzard. In total, at least 12 people died, numerous injuries resulted, and over $1,500,000 in property damage in 1966 dollars were done during the blizzard despite warnings. In eastern North Dakota, at least 27,300 livestock perished while farther east losses were less because forest cover in parts of Minnesota tended to limit drifting snow during the blizzard.

Blizzard Definitions

According to Black (1971), the first use of the word blizzard in reference to a snowstorm is somewhat obscure. However, it is known that mariner Henry Ellis used the word to describe a storm they endured on Hudson Bay in 1746 (Greely 1888). According to Wild (1997), the first reliably known use of the word blizzard as a storm in the U.S. can be traced back to a severe snowstorm that impacted Iowa and Wisconsin on December 8th, 1876 that was documented in the U.S. Signal Service’s Monthly Weather Review journal in December 1876.

From the 1870s through the 1970s, blizzards in the U.S. were defined by a variety of different criteria and thresholds; hence, a blizzard that occurred decades ago is not necessarily comparable to a blizzard today (e.g. United States Air Force 1978; Wild 1997; Schwartz 2005). However, according to Schwartz (2005), the National Weather Service abandoned prior definitions of blizzards sometime in the 1970s in favor of using the following standard definition of a blizzard for counties in the United States by the following weather conditions lasting three or more hours: 1) sustained or frequent wind gusts of 15.6 m s-1 (35 mi h-1) or greater; and, 2) enough snow in the air to reduce visibility to less than 402.3 m (0.25 mi).

In English-speaking countries outside the United States where blizzards are known to occur, blizzards are defined by a variety of different criteria. For example, in Canada, whether or not a blizzard warning is issued for a location depends on whether the location is north or south of the semi-permanent tree-line (Environment Canada 2015). For locations south of the semi-permanent tree-line, a blizzard warning is issued when winds of 11.1 m s-1 (40 km hr-1) or greater occur and cause widespread reductions in visibility to 400 m or less, due to blowing snow, or blowing snow in combination with falling snow, for at least four hours. North of the semi-permanent tree-line in Canada, a blizzard warning using the same criteria as south of the semi-permanent tree-line with a six-hour threshold required during which blizzard conditions occur (Environment Canada 2015). In the United Kingdom, a blizzard is defined for a location when moderate or heavy snowfall with winds of at least force 7 or 12.8 m s-1 (46 km h-1) causes drifting snow and reduced visibility to less than 200 m (Wild 1997). However, Wild (1997) indicates that blizzards are not mentioned in official advisory products issued by the Meteorological Office in the United Kingdom.

Photo Evidence of Blizzards

Photos in Figures 6-11 in the Appendix were obtained in-situ, shortly before, during or following blizzards in my study area. It is important to note that all photos in the Appendix were taken while cautiously to avoid injury or death.

Meteorology of Blizzards

Despite having endured numerous historical blizzards from the late 1870s through the early 1940s, it was not until about the mid-1940s that scientific research in the United States on the topic of blizzards began. Haurwitz and Austin (1944) represent what is perhaps the earliest scientific research on blizzards stating that blizzards tend to occur in Köppen (1931) Type D continental climates that are characterized by winter snow cover and definite seasonal temperature cycles.

From the late 1940s through the mid 1970s, much of the scientific research done on the topic of blizzards was embedded in literature that addressed features of cyclones such as fronts, jets, and upper-air troughs that were thought to be responsible for driving cyclone origin, depth, intensity, and track (Teweles and Norton 1950; McQueen and Loopstra 1957; Hughes 1958; Black 1971; United States Air Force 1978). The treatment of blizzards as exceptionally deep or deepening snow-producing cyclones in scientific literature during this era (Black 1971), was concurrent with developments in the ability to obtain routine, simultaneous, or synoptic, upper-air measurements from around the world following World War II. The availability of synoptic upper-air measurements eventually helped Bjerknes and Holmboe (1944), Sutcliffe (1947), Sutcliffe and Forsdyke (1950), Charney, Gilchrist and Shuman (1956), and Petterssen (1956) theoretically confirm the mechanisms controlling cyclone origin, depth, intensity, and track in the extra-tropics in what become known as quasi-geostrophic theory which stemmed from research pioneered by Bjerknes and Solberg several decades before in their “Norwegian frontal cyclone model” (Bjerknes 1919; Bjerknes and Solberg 1921; Bjerknes 1922; Henry 1922).

Focusing on the research done by Black (1971), a sample of snow-producing cyclones that impacted the north-central conterminous United States from 1957-1967 were subject to quasi-geostrophic theory to determine the characteristics of cyclones that had resulted in blizzard conditions. Black (1971) discovered blizzards were generally a severe wind phenomenon resulting from the passage of deep or deepening cyclones in the presence of snow, whether blowing or falling. To improve weather forecasts of blizzards, Black (1971) applied quasi-geostrophic theory to observations from across North America and used those observations in determining the controls of several snow-producing cyclones, including several that resulted in a blizzard, as they tracked across the north-central United States from two favored regions: 1) the lee of the Rockies in Colorado and, 2) the lee of the Rockies in Alberta. In total, Black (1971) identified 53 cyclones that resulted in blizzard conditions in the north-central conterminous U.S. with 25 originating in Colorado as “Colorado Lows”, 20 in Alberta as “Alberta Lows”, and the remaining 8 classified as “Other” (Black 1971, 5-6).

According to Black (1971), Colorado low-type cyclones are one of the major year round weather producers in the United States and typically formed in one of the most favored areas of cyclogenesis in the United States and then migrate onto the nearby plains. Black (1971) found that on the average 39 Colorado lows form from November to March, and that two to three blizzards will generate from such lows. Alberta lows in comparison occur most frequently compared to all lows over western North America; on average, forty-two Alberta lows occur during between November and March. Alberta lows cause storminess on both sides of the Canadian-United States boarder, but the storms most frequently occur across the prairie provinces of Canada. Approximately two blizzards per year result from Alberta lows. The month of March had the greatest number of blizzards during the 10 years studied with 10 of the blizzards having been Colorado low-type cyclones. The greatest number of Alberta low blizzards occurred from December to February, the months when the Canadian storm track is farthest south. In November, as in March, there were more blizzards from Colorado low-cyclones than from Alberta low-cyclones (Black 1971).

From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, scientific research on the topic of blizzards relied more upon recent advances in computing as well as newer weather instruments such as radar and satellite. For an overview of numerical weather prediction up through the late 1970s, the reader is encouraged to refer to Shuman (1978). Focusing on blizzards, in Salmon and Smith (1980), a thorough analysis of a cyclone that resulted in a blizzard for a large part of the United States in January 1978 was performed using a numerical model that solved for cyclone origin, depth, intensity, and track using quasi-geostrophic theory. By comparing model solutions with observations, Salmon and Smith (1980) were able to determine that the cyclone that resulted in epic snowfall and snow drifts across a large part of the central United States was different than typical snow-producing cyclones in terms of the phasing of two anomalously vigorous upper-air troughs in the westerlies that resulted in the unusual depth and intensity of the surface low. In Zapotocny, Johnson and Reames (1993), a blizzard that impacted the Chicagoland area in January 1979 was studied from an isentropic perspective by comparing solutions from a numerical model that used entropy as the vertical coordinate in comparison to another more traditional model that used scaled-pressure, or sigma, as the vertical coordinate. As early as the 1980s, Kocin (1988) demonstrated that it is possible to reconstruct prior blizzards that predate the use of upper-air observations in a re-analysis in their study of a supposed blizzard that impacted the Northeast United States in 1888. Although not exclusive to blizzards, Zishka and Smith (1980) contributed to research on the topic of blizzards by identifying cyclone tracks during the month of January, 1950-1977. Relevant findings from Zishka and Smith (1980) were: 1) cyclones in January most often formed in lee of the Rockies of Alberta and Colorado and tracked downstream onto the plains; and, 2) the number of cyclones appeared to perhaps be decreasing with respect to time.

As the science of meteorology matured from the about the mid 1990s onward, research on the topic of blizzards began to incorporate a variety of other both new and old sub-disciplines of meteorology such as mesoscale meteorology and clouds physics to study the finer scale structure of snow-producing cyclones resulting in blizzards (e.g. Kocin 1992; Marwitz and Toth 1993; Heffernan and Marwitz 1996; Wei and Marwitz 1996; Zupanski et. al 2002). For example, Brock et al. (1995) indicated the development of a state-wide mesonet in Oklahoma, while Benjamin, Brundage and Morone (1994) summarized their development of a terrain-following numerical weather prediction model aimed at forecasting finer scale phenomenon. In addition, Halpert and Smith (1994), showed that exceptional snow-producing cyclones resulting in blizzards could occasionally be found in literature related to topics of climatology and climate teleconnections as indicators of signals, or anomalous shifts, in longer-term patterns. Dery and Yau (2001) addressed a blizzard in the Arctic using numerical modeling as a turbulent microscale interaction between blowing snow and the mesoscale structure of the atmospheric boundary layer near the surface. In Coutts and Grace (1995), several seminal studies were presented on the topic of wind flow and its interaction with trees. In particular, Finnigan and Brunet (1995) show different types of turbulent wind flows in and around forests in flat versus hilly terrain to better understand wind flow origins and impacts. When coupled with the Black (1971) generalization of blizzards as a severe wind phenomenon along with the observations made by Bavendick (1920), who reported that blizzards were influenced by microscale obstacles such as buildings, fences, and tree stands, Finnigran and Brunet (1995) were undoubtedly unraveling the acute behavior of blizzards on scales comparable to Upper Midwest.

Blizzard Frequency

Several authors have written about blizzard frequency either directly, or indirectly, as part of studies focused on snowstorms. The most extensive study of blizzard frequency to date for the conterminous United States was done by Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) in their study of blizzard frequency using Storm Data publications from 1959-2000. By identifying 1) the average area impacted by blizzards; and, 2) a decreasing trend towards smaller areas impacted with respect to time from 1959-2000, Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) provided evidence in support of Branick (1997) who regarded blizzards as phenomenon with mesoscale aspects. Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) also identified parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota as having the highest blizzard frequency in the conterminous United States with an average of one or two blizzards per year per county, and identified January as the most favorable month of the year for blizzards in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Additional findings from Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) relevant to my study were: 1) annual probabilities of blizzard frequency of 50 to 76% in parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota; and, 2) the finding that the number of blizzards in the conterminous United States increased linearly with respect to time from 1959-2000. One of the shortcomings of Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) was that all reports of blizzards in Storm Data were pooled together from 1959-2000 regardless of the definition used. The definition used different thresholds for visibility and wind speed as well as a temperature criterion prior to the 1980s (Schwartz 2005); hence, Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) contains a problem of definition in that a blizzard from the 1960s, for example, might not be comparable with a blizzard from the 1990s as listed in Storm Data.

In addition to Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002), Branick (1997) studied the frequency of blizzards by county, 1982-1994, in the conterminous United States using Storm Data and included other types of significant winter-type weather events such as heavy snow, freezing rain and sleet events. Since Branick (1997) considered blizzards from 1982-1994 (no temperature criterion for blizzards), only reports of blizzards in Storm Data that share the same, modern definition were included. An important finding from Branick (1997) was the prevalence of significant winter-type weather events on mesoscales.

For those given the task of forecasting the weather, it is generally accepted that blizzards occur most often during the passage of cyclones. Prior to Schwartz and Schmidlin (2002) and Branick (1997), Black (1971) studied blizzards in the north-central conterminous U.S. from 1957-1967. While exhaustive for its time in that Black (1971) was able to identify macroscale features that would potentially drive high winds near the surface by tracing the origins and tracks of several cyclones that generated blizzards, Black (1971) did not address the influence that surface features might have had on the otherwise fast moving air circulating throughout the interior of cyclones. This is primarily because application of quasi-geostrophic theory at that time traditionally invoked equations representative of smooth, frictionless flow. In addition, the definition of a blizzard in Black (1971) is different from the definition of a blizzard used today. Nevertheless, Black (1971) represents one of the first scientific contributions on the topic of blizzard frequency.

Prior to Black (1971), Bavendick (1920) also wrote about the frequency of blizzards in more or less detail. In Blizzards and Chinooks of the North Dakota Plains, Bavendick (1920, 1) likened the most favorable time for a blizzard as “after a snowstorm, when the temperature is low and the snow has not packed” following his years of experience as a weather observer in North Dakota. Bavendick (1920) addressed the influence that microscale features such as buildings, fences and trees might have on the wind flow during blizzards. In Fox (1952), meteorological conditions which were thought to lead to the development of blizzards were presented in a magazine article titled Blizzards in the Northern Plains which appeared in one of the early editions of Weatherwise.

Focusing on authors who have written about snowstorms without regard for blizzards include Zielinski (2002) who researched several snowstorms that impacted the eastern and central United States in order to develop a classification and rating scheme for such storms on the basis of several parameters. However none of the parameters Zielinski (2002) used to classify and rate such storms were relatable to the definition of a blizzard. Similarly, Kocin and Uccellini (2004) developed a scale to rate snowstorms in the heavily populated Northeast United States using a sample of snowstorms on the basis of snowfall amount and where the snowfall occurred in terms of human population density. Kocin and Uccellini (2004) argued that higher snowfall amounts from snowstorms in highly urbanized areas are more disruptive than lighter snowfall amounts from snowstorms in rural areas. Kocin and Uccellini (2004) applied their scale to numerous additional storms east of the Rocky Mountains. Changnon, Changnon and Karl (2006) developed a climatology of snowstorms in the conterminous United States using snowfall amounts obtained from numerous surface weather stations from 1901-2001. To define a snowstorm, Changnon, Changnon and Karl (2006) used a threshold snowfall amount over a period of time. To illustrate their findings, Changnon, Changnon and Karl (2006) used a variety of useful figures showing the spatial and temporal frequency of snowstorms. In addition, Changnon, Changnon and Karl (2006) also indicated decadal periods with more or less snowstorms in the conterminous U.S. as related to cyclone frequency.

Outside of the United States, substantial research pertaining to blizzards included Lawson (2003) who studied blizzards in Canada using a standard definition applied to data obtained by select surface weather stations from 1953-1997. In Lawson (2003), an important finding was that no change was detected in terms of the number of blizzards reported just across the border in Canada even though the definition of a blizzard in Canada is different from the definition used in the United States. In the British Isles, Wild, O'Hare and Wilby (1997) performed a historical review of severe snowstorms, including blizzards, that impacted the United Kingdom from 1880-1989. In Wild (1996), careful effort was taken in defining a blizzard in the United Kingdom.