The first major snow storm of the season has arrived. Like most of us, I am sitting in my house trying to keep occupied and praying I don’t lose power. So, what better way to pass the time than to write a blog about blizzards.
Exactly, what is the definition of a “blizzard?” Does it require a certain amount of snow, wind speed, cold temperature? Glad you asked . Read on. The US National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a severe snowstorm characterized by (1) sustained winds or frequent gusts of at least 35 miles per hour, (2) drifting snow that reduces visibility to 1/4 mile or less, and (3) a duration of at least three hours. A specific amount of snowfall is not required. There is also a variation of blizzard called a “ground blizzard,” in which no new snow is falling, but loose snow already on the ground is being blown by strong winds.
Blizzards are formed when dry polar air moving south collides with warm, humid air moving north. In the mid-Atlantic and New England states we are sometimes hit with “nor’easters,” which are low-pressure areas stationed just off the coast whose winds come from the northeast. Normally, they produce the most severe hurricanes and blizzards in this area.
How should one prepare for a blizzard, and what are the do’s and don’ts to survive one after it has arrived. Many of these are common sense, but, as we all know , common sense is not always so “common.” Some, but, by no means all, of the suggestions are:
- Make sure you have a snow shovel and a sufficient supply of batteries, candles, flashlights, blankets and food (not perishables). Tuna fish anyone? Make sure your snow blower or generator has sufficient gas.
- Don’t travel unless it is an emergency. If you must travel, make sure your cell phone is fully charged, and you have plenty of water, food and warm clothes in case you get stuck, as rescue may be delayed. If you do get stuck, avoid running the car’s engine. To do so for prolonged periods exposes you to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. CO is colorless, odorless and tasteless; you won’t even be aware you are suffocating. You will just pass out.
a. Go outside without taking basic precautions, such as wearing warm clothes, or knowing the area so you don’t get lost.
b. Shovel snow using your back muscles; use your legs. If you are overweight and/or out of shape, don’t do it at all. In every snowstorm there are deaths attributable to shoveling snow.
c. Drink alcohol to keep warm. It will make you feel warm, but it has the opposite affect.
There have been many memorable blizzards over the years. According to my research the top 10 are summarized below. You will note they all have nicknames, which is a testament to their notoriety:
- “The Great White Hurricane” (March 1888) – Numero uno! This nor’easter dumped up to 50 inches of snow in New England and the mid-Atlantic states over a two-day period. The storm resulted in 400 deaths, including many sailors onboard boats. The devastation was exacerbated by the fact that the storm was unexpected. In NYC snow drifts were as high as the second story of some buildings.
- “The Storm of the Century” (March 1993) – This storm affected a wider area than any other in history, 26 states with roughly half the US population. Also, it produced heavy rain, wind and tornadoes as far south as Central America. The highest snowfall was 56 inches in Tennessee, and the highest winds were 144 mph in New Hampshire. It was responsible for 300 deaths.
- “The Great Lakes Storm” (November 1913) – According to the National Weather Service this was the most devastating storm ever in the Great Lakes area. It lasted five days, caused $5 million in damages, and killed over 200 people, many due to flooding.
- “The Cleveland Superbomb” (January 1978) – This storm was characterized by a collision of three low-pressure systems over the Midwest, which caused a sudden, severe drop in air pressure (known as a “weather bomb”). In some locales the air pressure dropped to readings more characteristic of a hurricane. The storm produced snow drifts as high as 25 feet. Indiana’s governor had to use tanks to rescue some stranded drivers.
- “The Great Blizzard” (February 1899) – This storm hit the South where most people were prepared to deal with it. It produced record low temperatures and frost everywhere. In New Orleans, the Port was totally iced over and the Mardi Gras parade was delayed while the snow was cleared from the parade route. The Washington, DC area had 51 straight hours of snow.
- “The NYC Blizzard” (December 1947) – The impact of this storm was so severe that I actually remember it as a two-year old living in Bellmore, LI. It dropped 26 inches on NY completely paralyzing the City for days. It was known as a mesoscale blizzard as the storm fell squarely on NYC, rather than over a broader area.
- “The Armistice Day Blizzard” (November 1940) – This storm dumped two feet of snow throughout much of the Midwest with drifts up to 20 feet. It cut a swath of destruction 1,000 miles wide; its winds were so severe that one newspaper described its gusts as “the winds of hell.” It was responsible for 150 deaths. The degree of the devastation it caused was exacerbated by the fact that it was not predicted accurately and caught people by surprise.
- “The Halloween Blizzard” (October 1991) – This storm devastated Iowa and Minnesota the day before Halloween. In Iowa it left up to two inches of ice, $5 million of crop damage and 80,000 homes without power. In Minnesota it caused damage of $11 million, and a dozen or so counties were designated as “disaster areas.”
- “The Blizzard of January 1996” – This nor’easter pounded a wide swath from West Virginia into New England over a two-day period, causing $4 billion in damage. The highest snow accumulation was four feet in West Virginia.
- “The Super Bowl Blizzard” (January 1975) – Many of you probably remember this one as it occurred right before that year’s Super Bowl. Snow drifts reached 20 feet in parts of the Midwest, and some areas of the South were hit by tornadoes. And, in case you were wondering, the Steelers beat the Vikings in New Orleans.
Honorable mention, of a sort, goes to the “Snow Winter” of 1880-81, which primarily affected the Midwest. As far as I could ascertain from my research, this was not characterized by any single record-setting blizzard, but by a series of them and severe cold. It is generally considered to have been the most severe winter ever in the US. The first blizzard occurred in October. It was so early in the year that it took everyone by surprise. Crops had not been harvested and were destroyed. There were food and fuel shortages all winter, and many people and livestock starved or died of exposure. That initial blizzard was followed up by several others and consistent bitter cold temperatures throughout the winter. In February 1881 a massive blizzard struck that lasted nine days. The spring thaw did not bring any relief. It caused massive flooding and further death and destruction. One family’s real-life struggles to survive this winter was chronicled in “The Long Winter,” a children’s book, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Snowstorms, or rather their aftermath, can be a lot of fun, especially for children (snowmen, sledding, no school, etc.), but they can also be very dangerous. Enjoy, but be safe.