Weather forecasting has come a long way in the century or so since modern forecasting has emerged. These forecasts, even if the lead time is only a few hours, can allow for decisions to be made that can save lives. Unfortunately, early weather forecasting was limited, especially in its earliest form. Even though the study of meteorology took off substantially in the late 19th century, weather forecasting and public communication was still minimal and led to instances of widespread loss of life.
One such disaster was a blizzard that caught many communities in the Great Plains off guard on January 12, 1888. While the blizzard itself certainly had quite an impact, what proved most deadly was the significant drop in temperatures. When all was said and done, 235 people were dead, many of whom were school children who had been caught in the storm after school was let out.
A strengthening low pressure system descended south from Alberta, Canada on January 11–the day before the tragic event. In their forecast, the Weather Bureau (the predecessor of the National Weather Service) mentioned how the cold wave was expected to push into the northern plains overnight on the 12th, with heavily drifting snow coinciding with it. Moisture for the impending blizzard would come from the Gulf of Mexico, with the advancing cold wave providing the bitter Arctic temperatures.
Surface map of the Central U.S. the morning after the event.
Ahead of the low, temperatures warmed considerably across the Central Plains, increasing some 20 - 40 degrees in the matter of one day's time. In Omaha, for instance, temperatures had warmed from -6°F at 7am on the 11th to 28°F twenty-four hours later. On the morning of the 12th, a relatively milder start to the day created a false sense of safety, and many utilized the opportunity to head into town (in rural areas where towns could be miles from home) to run errands or do work.
It was the rapid onset of blizzard conditions and the rush of arctic air that made the impacts of the Schoolhouse Blizzard so deadly. According to a Norwegian immigrant in Minnesota, temperatures had been warm enough that “...[it] melted snow and ice from the window until after 1pm, but that in the matter of a few hours...a dark and heavy wall [had] built up… …in a few moments, we had the severest snowstorm I had ever seen in my life with a terrible hard wind like a hurricane, snow so thick we could not see more than three steps from the door at times.” One state over, in Fargo, North Dakota, the temperature fell to -47°F with strong winds.
The onset of the blizzard, around 3 PM in parts of the North Plains, coincided with the end of the school day for many in the region. Thousands of people got caught in the storm as whiteout conditions enveloped them, many of whom were school children. In the small town of Plainview in northeastern Nebraska, a school teacher named Lois Royce was trapped in her schoolhouse when the storm set in. Royce had kept her students after class to shelter them from the building snowstorm. As the blizzard intensified around them and the mercury fell, the schoolhouse ran out of heating fuel. In an effort to save her students, Royce tried to lead them to a boarding house that sat less than 250 feet from the schoolhouse. Frigid temperatures and whiteout conditions made the short trek to safety treacherous and sadly three of the students froze to death. Royce, despite surviving the escape, had severe frostbite to her feet and had to have them amputated. Similar scenarios played out in other communities across the northern plains.
Depictions of incidents reported during the blizzard, as seen in the January 28, 1888 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Despite the hardship, however, there were stories of survival. Two men in South Dakota saved children from a local school by tying a rope from a nearby house to the school, where they led the students to safety. Reports of similar acts of heroism were reported throughout the region which saved the lives of many who were left vulnerable to the elements.
Now, over 130 years later, it can be easy to write off such a horrific tragedy as being a result of the times; how the limitations of the era prevented ample warning to those who would be caught in and lost in the intense blizzard. Even with advances in weather forecasting into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, such disasters can still occur. This shows how important it is for forecasters to not just aim for the best forecast possible, but also to provide context and adequate messaging so lives and property can be saved.