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Blizzards

BLIZZARDS

BLIZZARDS are defined by the National Weather Service as winter storms with sustained or gusting winds of 35 mph that produce blowing or drifting snow that reduces visibility to one-quarter mile or less for over three hours. While this is the technical definition of the word, for most people any sustained snowstorm accompanied by fierce winds is considered a blizzard. Blizzards are often, but not always, accompanied by extremely cold temperatures. They are most common in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes states, and the northeastern states along the coast, and less common in the Pacific Northwest.

The earliest European settlers in the colonies were stunned by the ferocity of North American blizzards. In 1717 a blizzard hit the eastern seaboard and was known as the "Great Snow" for more than a century. During this storm three to four feet of snow fell and harsh winds whipped it into twenty-five-foot drifts.

By the nineteenth century settlement had stretched westward, and settlers there were exposed to the howling winds and heavy snows of the prairie and plains areas. Railroads were frequently stalled by heavy snows. Food and fuel shortages could develop over time if a blizzard persisted for days on end. Fires were also a hazard in blizzards as stoves were overworked and water lines froze, preventing effective fire suppression. Telegraph, electric, and phone lines could be toppled. And the new suspension bridges could collapse under the heavy load of snow and ice.


Major blizzards racked the nation during the nineteenth century. In October of 1846 a blizzard struck northern California. Over eight days, heavy snows resulted in forty-foot drifts over Truckee Pass. The Donner Party of eighty-seven was trapped on the mountain, and when spring finally came in April of that year only forty-seven made their way back down. Cannibalism was reported here and elsewhere during blizzards in isolated western regions. In 1873 a major blizzard struck the northern Great Plains, leaving at least seventy people dead and paralyzing the railroad system for much of the winter.

In January of 1888 a blizzard struck the Great Plains, with deep snow and rapidly falling temperatures. The thermometer dropped sixty degrees in eighteen hours. Many of the 200 dead were children trying to make their way home from school. Later that year came the "Blizzard of '88." This storm still warrants inclusion in many history books for its sheer size and ferocity. From the Chesapeake Bay to Nantucket nearly 200 ships were damaged or destroyed. Then, from 10 to 14 March, the eastern seaboard was pummeled. From two to four feet of snow fell over three days across much of the region. Freezing temperatures were accompanied by wind gusts of over 70 mph across New York City. The snow drifted more than twenty feet deep, covering vehicles and even the first floors of some New York City structures. People in the city were trapped in elevated cars, stores, trains, and offices. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, forty to fifty inches of snow fell and formed drifts up to fifty feet deep. Entire houses and trains were buried. At the end of the storm more than 400 people had died.

By the twentieth century new technologies helped people deal with the consequences of blizzards. Massive plows could be attached to locomotives or trucks. Telegraphs and phones could be used to report approaching blizzard conditions. And by later in the century, sophisticated weather tracking and warning systems were in place. In Washington, D.C., from 27 to 29 January 1922, a winter storm buffeted the city, leaving nearly two feet of snow. It became known as the "Knickerbocker Storm" because the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater collapsed, killing nearly 100 inside. In 1941, March started out warm in the upper Midwest, and duck hunters took to the lakes when the season opened. But on 15 March a sudden blizzard whipped up and more than seventy died in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. A famous blizzard struck Chicago in 1967 when a series of strong storms struck at the western edge of Lake Michigan. It began on 26 January, and by the next day two feet of snow covered the city. It took two weeks to clear the snow; during that time sixty people died and the city experienced heavy looting.

In the late twentieth century two major storm periods racked the nation. The "Superstorm of 1993" (some called it the "Blizzard of the Century") arrived in March of that year involving nearly two-thirds of the entire nation and setting snowfall records across the eastern seaboard. Blizzard conditions existed from Alabama to Massachusetts, where some termed the storm a "white hurricane." To the west lay a vast track of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and floods. At least ninety-two died in the series of storms. In 1996 came another "Blizzard of the Century," blasting the snowfall records set in 1993. The storm came in three major parts, again affecting nearly two-thirds of the continental United States. It began in the southeast, striking from 6 to 8 January. As it moved north, it left more than four feet of snow in places like Virginia, a record snowfall. Nearly three feet of snow fell in Pennsylvania and two feet in parts of New York and New Jersey. Nine states were virtually paralyzed, and more than 100 people died. A week later, 11–13 January, another storm rocked the northeast. The following week, 17–18 January, a major blizzard struck the central and northern plains.

Yet another season of major winter storms and blizzards arrived the next November, beginning with massive ice storms. Blizzards struck some areas of the Great Plains and Great Lakes two times a week in a repeated pattern that left record snow amounts of two to three feet per blizzard. Winter temperatures reached minus eighty degrees with wind chills. Total snowfall in some Great Plains and Great Lakes areas exceeded 100 inches. The fall and


winter storms left a season of disastrous flooding from the Red River of the north to parts of the Upper Mississippi.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cable, Mary. The Blizzard of '88. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

PollyFry

See alsoDisasters ; Weather Service, National .

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cold wave

cold wave The conditions associated with air of continental polar origin, often dominated by an anticyclone behind a cold front, that moves south into central and eastern parts of the USA. Cold waves are defined as a fall of 11°C or more to a minimum base (−18°C in northern, central, and north-eastern regions) within a 24-hour period. In southern states (Florida, California, and the Gulf Coast) the minimum fall is 9°C and the base minimum 0°C.

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cold wave

cold wave The conditions associated with air of continental polar origin, often dominated by an anticyclone behind a cold front, that moves south into central and eastern parts of the USA. Cold waves are defined as a fall of 11°C or more to a minimum base (−18°C in northern, central, and northeastern regions) within a 24-hour period. In southern states (Florida, California, and the Gulf Coast) the minimum fall is 9°C and the base minimum 0°C.

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snowstorm

snow·storm / ˈsnōˌstôrm/ • n. a heavy fall of snow, esp. with a high wind. ∎ fig. a shower or large quantity of something: it swam away in a flurry of wings and flippers, raising a snowstorm of foam. ∎ chiefly British term for snow globe.

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snowstorm

snowstormconform, corm, dorm, form, forme, haulm, lukewarm, Maugham, misinform, norm, outperform, perform, shawm, storm, swarm, transform, underperform, warm •landform • platform • cubiform •fungiform, spongiform •aliform • bacilliform •cuneiform, uniform •variform • vitriform • cruciform •unciform • retiform • multiform •oviform • triform • microform •chloroform • cairngorm • sandstorm •barnstorm •brainstorm, rainstorm •windstorm • snowstorm • firestorm •thunderstorm

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