(Photo Credit: XIT Museum in Dalhart, Texas)
While certainly a center of severe weather activity during the summer months, the southwestern United States is not commonly thought of as a geographic area prone to strong and impactful winter storms. This is undoubtedly true at the end of March when temperatures average well above freezing throughout a majority of the region. However, a three day event at the end of March in 1957 brought portions of southwestern Kansas and the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle one of the most devastating blizzards the country has ever seen.
After a relatively cold start to the month, historical data from 1957 in Dodge City, KS reveals an abnormally warm mid-March with a maximum high temperature of 79°F observed on March 10th. While temperatures remained in the 70’s for another week, they fell quickly at the end of the month and by March 23rd the high temperature barely reached the freezing mark, 32°F exactly. A surface analysis chart for the night before shows the presence of a low pressure system situated over western Colorado, initially bringing heavy rain to the panhandle region (pictured below).
(Photo Credit: NOAA Central Library)
As the system strengthened and moved southeast, an influx of cold air from the north simultaneously dropped temperatures and initiated a transition from rain to snow overnight into the day on March 23rd. By that evening, the system had deepened 10 mb. from its pressure just 24 hours earlier to a pressure of 986 mb. and quickly moved southeast into northern Texas (for more information on pressure systems and how they work click here!). For nearly two straight days the area was engulfed by heavy snow and high winds that resulted in near whiteout conditions.
In total, this event brought a multitude of locations upwards of 15 inches of accumulating snow in just a 48 hour period. Wind gusts near 60 mph created huge snow drifts, some of which measured up to 30 feet. One of the most dangerous winter storms to ever impact the area, this blizzard claimed 11 lives, a substantial amount of livestock and caused $6 million of damage (in 1957 dollars). The historic 1957 winter storm impacted all who lived in the Texas panhandle region at the time and as stories from those who survived are passed down through generations, it shall not soon be forgotten.
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©2020 Weather Forecaster Dennis Weaver
Let us spin the clock back a century… On March 28th, 1920, one of the largest tornado outbreaks in the modern era affected a large swath of states in the Deep South and Midwest in what became known as the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak of 1920. This outbreak saw the spawn of 37 confirmed total tornadoes of which 16 of them were rated F3 or higher (based on the traditional Fujita scale for tornado strength). All in all, 380 lives were lost during the event. Of course, this was long before any weather forecasting technology or public awareness for severe weather came about as the current-day National Weather Service (then known as the U.S. Weather Bureau) didn’t implement the watch/warning system until 1953. 1920s forecasting guidelines and techniques were still being crafted and given the accepted regulations at the time, were rather crude and vague which did not convey as much information as the public.
The surface analysis shared above depicts an environment conducive for such intense convective activity to occur. A mature lee cyclone developed east of the Rockies and traversed over the central Plains. A trailing cold front sagged southward over the southern Plains while a warm front moved poleward across the mid-south and well into the Midwest states. The result is a setup which provided ample moisture fetch across many of the southern and Midwestern states and, coupled with decently warm temperatures and favorable winds, set the stage for a potentially dangerous outbreak. Also, let’s recall that during the 1920s, the science of meteorology was nowhere near the levels of today so parameters such as storm helicity, jet stream dynamics, and instability were not known. Forecasters could not convey such information so they relied on basic weather observations. Severe thunderstorms were numerous across many states including Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois were multiple tornadoes touched down and caused considerable damage to farms and houses in rural areas to buildings and established business in the more concentrated suburbs and cities. Storm motion was rapid; most storms had forward motion exceeding 50 mph which is presumed to be due to strong steering flows aloft.
Since writing this piece, this event has risen to relevance in recent times as the latest severe weather outbreak that affected states such as Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. March 28th, 2020 had similar features observed on the surface analyses and upper-air charts such that the environmental setup favored organized development of surface-based supercells. The Storm Prediction Center issued a 15% risk of significant tornadoes across portions of central Illinois even…
Since the devastating outbreak in 1920, weather forecasting, modeling, and verification has gone to great lengths to provide the useful information needed by the general public to prepare and be weather-aware for significant severe weather events. But whether it is 1920 or 2020, the mission of forecasters remains the same: Protecting life and property.
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© 2020 Meteorologist Brian Matilla