Seventy-three years ago today, on November 11, 1940, the U.S. upper Midwest suffered one of the very worst blizzards in its history–and a very unique and unusual environmental catastrophe. It’s hard to tell the story of the Armistice Day Blizzard without getting into the realm of hard core science, and tossing about terms like “tropopause” and “frontal passages.” But cutting through all the meteorological “inside baseball,” suffice it to say that Armistice Day 1940 was a very strange day. The storm came as a surprise. The temperature was 63 degrees F in Chicago that morning, but by midnight, when snow was falling heavily, it had plunged to 20 degrees–an amazing one-day temperature swing.
The snow that fell on November 11 and 12 was like nothing anyone had seen since the “Schoolhouse Blizzard” of 1888. Snowfalls of almost 30 inches were recorded in parts of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Minneapolis got 16 inches of snow and winds of 65 miles per hour battered Grand Rapids, Michigan. People died not just from cold or exposure; a train crash in Minnesota caused two deaths, and 66 sailors drowned on various ships sunk on the Great Lakes.
Two unfortunate victims of the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.
November was duck hunting season, and the fact that the storm wasn’t predicted meant a lot of hunters were out in the wilderness hunting ducks. Armistice Day was a holiday in 1940 with schools and businesses closed so there were a lot more people hunting than normal. Many hunters were trapped on islands in the Mississippi River in Minnesota and froze to death; some 25 hunters died this way. Famous aviator Max Conrad, who in the 1960s would set an around-the-world flight record, flew his light plane into the storm to airlift supplies to some of the hunters, and is credited with saving lives. A total of 154 people died and the damage from the blizzard exceeded $3.5 million, a lot of money at the time.
Amazingly, there is a connection between the Armistice Day Blizzard and another famous event that occurred a few days earlier. On November 7, 1940, four days before the storm struck, high winds tore down the badly-designed Tacoma Narrows Bridge, whose collapse was caught in a spectacular piece of film. The winds that caused this disaster originated from a deep low-pressure area that moved west–and eventually became the Armistice Day Blizzard.
I bet you didn’t know that.