Ill Wind, Uncommon Cold
An atmospheric scientist and his students revisit the Midwest's storm of the century.
By Randy Mertens.
those readers emphasized big events far from home: massacre and plunder as Nanking fell to Chinese revolutionaries; former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour ousted as the leader of Britain's Conservative Party; Andrew Carnegie announcing the organization of his eponymous charitable corporation.
Most of the nation's newspapers also remarked on the numerological oddity of the day's figurative rendering. It would be well, reported the New York Times, "…for those who delight in curious trifles to take their fill of enjoyment out of dating to-day, 11-11-11."
For millions of Americans living in the nation's heartland, however, the day would be remembered as far more than a curious trifle on the calendar. Even as they settled into what seemed a blissfully warm reprieve from the inevitability of the coming winter, a massive cold air dome in Canada was poised to explode southward — a "blue norther" of such devastating proportions that many still regard it as the most sudden and dangerous cold blast in American history.
ominous blue-gray clouds streaming in from the north. Within minutes the region's azure skies had vanished, smothered by gray sheets of driving rain. Then came sleet, hail, thunderstorms, tornadoes and blizzards, all within the span of a day. Winds were so powerful that they turned buildings into tangled heaps. People who had awakened to a summer-like morning froze to death by sundown.
Stunned residents hardly knew what hit them. And, in fact, even a hundred years later we are still struggling to determine exactly how and why some blue northers — so called, according to local lore, because of the distinctive color of those threatening clouds — become so powerful and destructive.
MU atmospheric scientist Patrick Market and his students are among those seeking answers. Market and his team have analyzed the 11/11/1911 storm using both modern meteorological tools and research into the historical records. They've created a three-dimensional, 21st-century model of what happened in the atmosphere to trigger the blast, and an online map of its destructive force.
Market, an associate professor in soil, environmental and atmospheric sciences, has for more than a year studied what climatologists now call the Great Blue Norther. "Actual observed data are sparse from that period," Market says. "So, we augmented the scientific observations with newspaper reports archived in state historical societies. This is the best and most complete scientific record that we can create from the documented and reliable sources available."
The sudden summer-to-winter cold front fits right into his research. Market studies the atmospheric dynamics of the world's biggest storms, particularly how the jet stream interacts with weather fronts. His overall research aims to better predict heavy rain and snowfall events.
In addition to the bitter cold and snow, the Great Blue Norther spawned deadly tornadoes. Nine touched down in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. In Janesville, Wis., one of the first cities affected, what would probably have ranked as a Category 4 tornado on today's Enhanced Fujita Scale killed nine and injured 50. Stunned citizens were still pulling survivors from the debris when a blinding snowstorm hit.
Downtown buildings in Owosso, Mich., were pushed over into strange shapes. Homes in Virginia, Ill., looked like a bomb had gone off inside them. "The sudden cold snap was the marquee event," says Market. "But the tornado damage in certain locales was significant, also.
In Kansas City, Mo., that morning, the forecast was for calm, warm weather. People left their coats in the closet as they enjoyed the pleasant conditions. Soon this was all a memory, as the Great Blue Norther burst into town with howling winds. In a matter of hours, the temperature dropped to 11 degrees. Rain turned to thunderstorms and hail, then sleet and heavy snow.
In central Missouri, the storm hit around 2 p.m., changing warm, southerly breezes to northerly gales. Columbia weather records show that in just one hour, the temperature fell from 82 degrees to 38 degrees. At 4 p.m. there was sleet, with a temperature of 30 degrees. By midnight it was 13 degrees. This 69-degree swing established a single-day temperature differential record that has never been broken.
In Tipton, Mo., news wire reports of the day describe thunderstorms with hurricane-force winds and hail the size of walnuts. A tornado went through the small town, damaging almost every structure.
The same thing happened in Springfield, Mo. At 4 p.m. a violent line of thunderstorms preceded the cold wave, creating hailstorms and tornadoes. Volunteers combing collapsed buildings for survivors had to call for their winter coats to continue, as the temperature dropped 70 degrees in 10 hours, another 100-year-old record that has never been equalled.
The tornadoes, cold and blizzards were only part of the story. A history of the event published by National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Albert quoted John S. Hazen, the weatherman-in-charge at Springfield in 1911, on the devastating effects of straight-line winds: "Increasing S to SW winds shifting to the NW at 3:45 p.m. and attaining an extreme velocity of 74 miles for one minute. Considerable damage done to buildings, wires and trees. Many windows blown in and several people injured."
Larry Wood, a freelance writer living in the Ozarks, recalled his grandmother describing the Norther's local effects. "The temperature dropped so rapidly that most of her family's potato crop, which had been stored in a shed, froze before she and her siblings could move the potatoes to the cellar," Wood wrote.
In St. Louis, the storm struck at dusk. Streetcars were stopped, houses "unroofed," and telegraph poles toppled. The St. Louis Star reported the temperature dropped from 76 degrees at supper time to 27 degrees and hour later, with "rain falling in torrents and a 50-mph wind rocking trees and buildings." The paper said an unidentified man on the Eads Bridge was blown from his buggy and into the Mississippi River.
Thankfully, Market says reassuringly, "Blue Northers like the November 11, 1911 storm are rare events." But the question remains, how could such an unusual storm occur at all?
weather scientists like Market know that Blue Northers get their start when a large and bitterly cold air mass builds in the Arctic, usually in association with a strong high pressure system. Eventually atmospheric conditions push the frigid air southward.
Typically these Arctic air masses move slowly, eventually colliding with warmer air over the U.S. and triggering a winter storm. But that's not what happened in 1911. Instead, something grabbed that Arctic mass and shot it southward fast enough to take it from northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in just two days.
Using modern meteorological models, Market and his team gathered available U.S. and global weather data from 1911 to chart the formation and course of the Great Blue Norther. It's an exercise that holds more than just historic interest: understanding the processes that create such rare and destructive weather events could help ensure that future events don't catch forecasters flat-footed.
Weather balloons were rare in 1911, and weather-gathering aircraft non-existent. Satellites and Doppler radar had yet to be invented. While meteorologists of the era did have access to an extensive network of regional U.S. and Canadian surface weather reporting stations, they lacked the critical worldwide data taken for granted today.
Forecasters of 100 years ago were also only just beginning to comprehend how warm and cold fronts worked. They had no inkling of the jet stream, the rapidly moving river of air thousands of feet above the Earth's surface.
Given the gaps in the historical data, Market and his team had to extrapolate surface temperature, wind and pressure data to what was happening globally and in the upper atmosphere. They also looked for modern Blue Northers that had already been analyzed with high-tech tricks of the trade. The plan was to use the better-documented storms to create a modern weather model for the 1911 event.
That effort brought them to a storm that occurred Jan. 29, 2008. While this storm was not nearly as fast or strong as the Great Blue Norther — the 2008 temperature drop was from 70 degrees to 15 degrees over a longer period of time — but it did have a similar starting point, its timing and temperature decrease were in the same ballpark, and it was also generated via an intense cold-weather front hitting an existing warm-air mass.
Using the 2008 data, Market was able to see how the dome of intensely cold air in 1911 might have grown so large that it began to ooze south. Once on the move, the cold air mass would have likely encountered and interacted with a strong jet stream that was then, uncharacteristically, plunging deep into the American Midwest. This southerly swing by the jet stream would have dynamically forced the dome of Arctic air into a violent collision with the warm and moist air mass that was at same time being funneled northward by winds from the Gulf of Mexico. Market and his students determined it was these separate weather events, each working in concert, that created the violence of the 11/11/11 storm.
The team also explored other, more narrowly focused questions related to the event using data from the NOAA-CIRES 20th Century Global Reanalysis. This "20th Century Reanalysis," as climate scientists call it, is an ongoing effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado CIRES/Climate Diagnostics Center to compile a record of atmospheric variability over the past 130 years. This retrospective analysis uses advanced computing power to turn historic observations of atmospheric pressure, ocean temperature, and sea ice into data "grids" that climate researchers can use to model specific events.
In particular, says Market, "we were able to use those fields to establish the nature of instability in the environment along and ahead of the cold front. From the observational record, we knew that there were thunderstorms associated with the passage of the front. The 20th Century Reanalysis grids give us a much better idea of how the atmosphere trended toward thunderstorms and their development, even though the grids are quite limited."
Market's team also knew, for example, that most places experienced the same temperature drop. But not all experienced it at the same pace. Some places, like Columbia's 69-degree drop in 10 hours, were far more extreme than others. Why?
"The answer, made clearer by the 20th Century Reanalyses, is the extent and strength of the line of thunderstorms," says Market. "By forming just to the west of the Columbia area in the early afternoon, when temperatures were at their daytime highest, the thunderstorms and their cold downdrafts and outflow started the calamitous temperature drop. This drop was then reinforced by the larger cold frontal zone."
Simultaneously with the creation of the weather model, students consulted Missouri historical archives for first-person accounts of the storm and newspaper clippings. That effort resulted in a three-inch-tall stack of clippings from Missouri news media, outfits both large and small, that chronicled the aftermath of the storm.
Market says the comparison of atmospheric analysis and on-the-ground destruction gave his students a unique insight into violent weather and what to expect when they create their own forecasts. A link to the interactive map of the storm is available on Illumination's website or at http://cafnrnews.com/1911weathermap. *