Freak, deadly storm: Children's Blizzard of 1888
This week marks the anniversary of what's probably one of the most ferocious and deadly blizzards in this country which, perchance, you've never heard about. On the morning of January 12, 1888, a blizzard swept down suddenly on the unsuspecting inhabitants on the prairies of the upper Midwest (especially portions of Nebraska and South Dakota) with unprecedented ferocity.
One moment the air was clear, calm, with spring-like warmth. Then, in a period of just a few minutes the sky darkened and temperatures dropped 18 degrees, and vicious winds drove tiny snow flakes (described as "ice dust") which almost instantaneously created a whiteout with visibility near zero. Blizzard conditions continued until about midnight as temperatures fell precipitously to double digits below zero with a wind chill of -40. An estimated 4-5 feet of snow had fallen, although drifting undoubtedly made accurate measurements virtually impossible.
By the next morning (Jan. 13), hundreds were killed with a high proportion of children among the storm's victims as they attempted to return home from school.
The storm is most commonly referred to now as "The Children's Blizzard" , which is the title of a superb non-fiction, must-read book by David Laskin documenting this tragic event. (The storm is also known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard and the Schoolchildren's Blizzard).
There is little doubt that reference to the "Great Blizzard of 1888" brings to mind, not the Children's Blizzard, but the massive snowstorm during March that year which led to over 400 deaths and shut down most cities along the eastern seaboard for days to weeks.
The Great Blizzard invariably tops the list of the worst U.S. winter storms. The lesser known Children's Blizzard ranks 5th, but affected a larger area with the death toll held down largely by the much lower population density. (Note: the Great Blizzard and Children's Blizzard rank 3rd and 5th, respectively, in the list of top ten deadliest blizzards worldwide.)
What made this storm especially deadly was the unusual warmth in the region before the storm struck.
Anyone who ventured outside wasn't properly dressed for the Arctic weather that was on its way. As fate would have it, parents sent their children off to school in the morning without heavy coats, boots, hats, or mittens, being totally unaware they could be caught in a raging blizzard on the way home that afternoon. When the blizzard suddenly struck, some teachers hunkered down with their charges in the small school houses. Many more apparently panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes relying on the children to somehow find their way home.
(Note: Sound familiar? Even with today's state-of-the-art weather prediction systems, forecasts come with uncertain reliability leading to the oft convoluted and controversial decisions regarding school closings, early dismissal, and/or late arrivals.)
Scores of children, along with parents, teachers and other would-be rescuers, experienced severe hypothermia from rapidly falling temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow which buried the landscape and encased school houses and in tremendous snow drifts.
Laskin vividly describes several individual stories that end tragically. For example, dozens of kids got lost in the whiteout and froze to death or suffocated beneath the rapidly accumulating snow. One woman died after unsuccessfully searching for her child just feet from the safety of her home not visible through the blinding snow.
On the other hand, there are several suspenseful accounts of the harrowing travail of many who survived. Some children managed to find temporary shelters or bundled together for warmth in the open prairie. In one case, the teacher kept the children in the schoolhouse until the storm abated, surviving the night by the warmth of a fire fueled by the foresightedness of the teacher's stockpiling of fuel.
Laskin is also a weather geek and explains the meteorology behind the event given the available, but relatively limited sources of weather observations and analyses. This includes describing the development and progression of lows and highs, fronts, jet streams and jet streaks, which no doubt reflect the assistance in such matters when writing his book from Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of the National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and co-author (with Paul Kocin) of Northeast Snowstorms.
To say the least, the state of the science and art of forecasting in 1888 was in the early days of development. There were no satellite observations, limited surface data and no observations aloft, let alone computers and weather models for forecasters (like Wes Junker) to peruse and come up with the best forecasts possible days in advance of possible weather threats. There were some indications of a drop in temperature and snow from surface data available to forecasters at the time, but lack of timely and reliable communications kept word from getting out before it was far too late.
We'd like to believe that advances in atmospheric science, vast system of observations, global satellite coverage, computer models, and instant communication would preclude a storm of this magnitude striking without advance notice. But surprise snowstorms remain a possibility even at short ranges to the extent the threat is communicated as a simple deterministic yes or no. With today's tools though, outright surprises can be avoided when the forecast information also includes reasonable and reliable estimates of the degree of confidence in alternative scenarios (to yes/no).
| January 14, 2011; 10:45 AM ET
Categories: History, Latest, Tracton, U.S. Weather
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