The Worst of Winter: 10 Killer Storms in History




I had written this for another venue, but in light of the extreme weather the winter of 2013-2014 has brought to the northern hemisphere, I decided to make the information available in this blog for those interested.

Weather prognosticators love to stir up public excitement with a big storm. Grim predictions of heavy snow, high winds, low temperatures – like lemmings, people rush to the stores to stock up on bread, milk and toilet paper. Modern storm forecasting, though, serves to keep most people inside and off the roads, prepared for the possibility of losing electricity and heat. Until just a few decades ago, though, weather prediction was vague and unreliable, relegated to old farmers and prescient grandmothers.

Our ancestors were often lulled into complacency by sudden warm spells or the appearance of tulips and geese. They had no way of knowing that a killer storm was swooping on them from the north or the sea. Sometimes these unexpected weather events were occasions of great loss of life and property,  and even changed geographic features in the places affected.



From Kansas to Michigan, what had been an unusually mild day in the mid-60s dropped quickly to freezing temperatures. Rain become sleet, then turned to heavy snow. (LINK 1)Some places received up to 27 inches of snow while withstanding wind gusts of 50 to 80 miles per hour. This cyclonic blizzard began as an intense low pressure system, uniting Gulf of Mexico moisture with an arctic air mass.

Over 150 deaths occurred during the storm. At least twenty-five duck hunters were stranded on the Mississippi and died in the plunging temperatures, lost on small islands or in their john boats. Two people died in Minnesota in a train collision when  engineers couldn’t see more than a few yards ahead. On Lake Michigan, 66 sailors were lost during the storm. (LINK 2)


1888 was not a good year for weather. Two major storms hit the North American continent. The first was in January, when a major surface low that originated in Alberta descended into Montana and Colorado.  This cold front from Canada met warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures dropped 50 degrees in a few hours, to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and lower.  Montana and the Dakotas were struck with high winds and snow early in the day on January 12, with the storm striking Nebraska by afternoon.

Since the storm was preceded by a warm day, many people had gone out to catch up on chores or venture into town from their farms and homesteads. Children were in classes, most of them in one-room schoolhouses. (LINK3)Those who ventured to get home when the storm struck never made it.  Many children were kept at the schools, but those who ran out of fuel for the stoves or who attempted to reach nearby houses were overcome, with a few brave teachers managing to rescue their pupils in death-defying hikes through the deep snow and high winds. Since many of the teachers were young women still in their teens, their courage and fortitude are all the more remarkable. (LINK4)


The northeastern seaboard of North America was surprised by an early spring blizzard. New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts received snowfalls of 20 to 60 inches, and points north suffered as much as the storm swept up the coast. Winds of forty-five miles per hour built snowdrifts up to 50 feet.

Mild weather preceded the nor-easter. The severity was completely unexpected; people had been out the day before working in gardens.

Known as the “White Blizzard,” it began around midnight on March 12th. (LINK5) Ships could neither make port nor run offshore. It is supposed that at least 100 sailors were lost at sea. All traffic stalled from Chesapeake Bay to Montreal for days and even weeks. Streets and roads were completely blocked so that in New York, fire stations were unable to respond to emergency calls. Two hundred New Yorkers died in the storm, some frozen as they were overcome with hypothermia in the streets, others in fires resulting from emergency attempts to heat houses. Rural communities fared better, and many rolled their roads for sleigh traffic following the storm.

As a result of the great storm that claimed more than 400 lives, Boston and New York began planning their subway systems. (LINK6)



The bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil was fought by two English armies, during the Wars of the Roses. In Yorkshire, between York and Leeds, combatants that numbered up to 75,000 men met at Towton in a sudden spring storm. (LINK7)  At least 28,000 died, according to a contemporary commenter, Chancellor George Neville.

The defending Lancastrians, supporters of King Henry VI and Queen Margaret, faced into the storm and could not return arrow fire. Following this turning point in the civil war, York usurper Edward IV claimed the throne, although the battles continued for another ten years. (LINK8)

It is estimated that about 1% of the male population of England took part in this decisive battle. The unexpected spring storm increased the casualties, although the killing was described at the time as “especially brutal.”

GROTE MANDRENKE 16 January 1362

“The Great Man-Drowning” was a defining episode of the era of 400 years known now as “The Little Ice Age.”  A cyclonic southwesterly gale hit Ireland and England from the Atlantic, but did the most damage in the Netherlands, northern Germany and the region of southern Denmark known as Schleswig. (LINK9) The storm surge overtook the German city of Rungholt. Sixty parishes – towns and villages – disappeared in Denmark. The Zuider Zee changed shape, flooding great swaths of the Netherlands. An actual tally of the dead was never made, as churches and village halls disappeared, taking the records of the communities with them. It is now estimated that at least 25,000 people died in the disaster. After this, dikes and flood gates were built to stabilize the Zuider Zee, and soon Amsterdam was transformed from a small village to a major trading port. (LINK10)


NEW YEAR STORM Southern and Eastern China 11 January 2008

Striking the most populous region of China, a series of snow and ice storms disabled the country for more than a month. A major front of continental polar air met humid tropical maritime air east of the Tibetan Plateau as the Chinese New year began. Because many Chinese workers are internal immigrants who return home at this holiday, millions were stranded in railway stations and on snow-clogged roads. (LINK 11)

Along with waves of snow and ice, temperatures dropped below freezing for more than a month, the coldest stretch of winter weather since 1987. (LINK12)

Houses and power-lines collapsed, crops were lost, and at least 107 people died. Eleven billion dollars in damages resulted. 306,000 soldiers were mobilized to remove snow and ice, with another million reservists called up to assist in the emergency response. Power-lines were shot with sub-machine guns to dislodge ice. Air-drops of food, blankets and other necessities were made in  the province of Guizhou. (LINK13)

THE GREAT STORM, either 26 November 1703 (Julian calendar) or 7 December 1703 (Gregorian)

Extreme winds and storm conditions resulted from a sudden drop in barometric pressure, as low as 950 millibars, just off the coast of southern England. The winds took down over 2,000 chimney stacks in London alone, massive brick structures weighing tons. Roofing was stripped from buildings, pinnacles fell from churches, and cathedrals lost their great stained glass windows. It was a fatal mistake to be in the streets. (LINK14) Eddystone Light at Plymouth was lost, killing all six inhabitants. Hundreds drowned in low-lying areas, unable to flee in the stormy night. Sailing vessels were especially hard-hit, both on the Thames and in the seas between Britain and Scandinavia. It is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 sailors lost their lives in the storm.(LINK15)

storm falmouth packet uk


THE GREAT FROST AND THE BLIAIN AN AIR (Year of Slaughter) Ireland 1740-1741

A series of storms in the midst of an abnormally cold spell of weather started on the 29th and 30th of December 1739.  While the sudden freezing of major rivers was a novelty for many, the unrelenting frost and snow soon caused hardship and deaths. A party of mourners went through the ice of a river as they left a funeral in North Tipperary; twenty drowned. (LINK16)

An unforeseen consequence was that the potatoes froze in the ground. In milder winters, farmers left some of the crop buried and took it up as needed, but early in January they found that they could not dig the fields through the snow and frost. Potatoes are ruined by freezing and disintegrate into a black slime once defrosted. Both the unharvested crops and the seed potatoes for the following spring were ruined. Turf and timber for fuel ran out as the stockpiles were consumed to combat the fierce cold. As many died of hypothermia as of starvation. (LINK17)

The unnaturally cold, snow-bound winter and the subsequent cold summer were because of volcanic activity in Kamchatka,  Russia. The people could not have known this, and many saw it as a judgment of God.

More than 310,000 died as a result, out of the Irish population of 2.5 million.


SNOW HURRICANE 9-11 October 1804, Eastern Seaboard, North America

Noteworthy as the first recorded tropical cyclonic storm to produce snow, the storm of October 1804 reached wind speeds of 110 miles per hour in Massachusetts. (LINK) The worst of the hurricane was the damage to standing timber and crops still in the fields; many farmers were ruined by the loss of their late crops, cattle and orchards. (LINK18)

Boston suffered the loss of much property, with roofs and chimneys damaged. Churches suffered greatly. Most of the damage affected the maritime industry. Wharves and warehouses in coastal communities were destroyed. Many vessels were driven aground or capsized. While recorded deaths numbered less than twenty, later reports recorded that several ships were presumed to be lost at sea with all hands. (LINK19)

Snows up to 48 inches (4 feet) fell in Vermont and points north.


NEW ENGLAND STORMS 4 December 1786

Winter came early to northern New England in 1786. Rivers were frozen solid by the end of November. Vessels iced in could not move their cargoes; economic loss was heavy.

The first major storm struck around noon of the fourth of December, in frigid temperatures. White-out conditions soon prevailed, and the nor’easter brought in storm surges that flooded the salt marshes and destroyed the stooked hay. Warehouses in Boston were flooded, and winter supplies destroyed. Wood and lumber were taken off the wharves by the rising storm tide. Six feet of snow fell in Boston in two days. (LINK20)

Vessels headed for harbor either had to risk being driven onto the rocks or try to stand off; a few made Boston after desperate voyages. Some foundered. Three men who had managed to get ashore from a damaged ship perished in the snow while their shipmates clinging to the wreckage of their vessel survived to be rescued. Two men who had been clamming on the salt marshes took shelter in a hayrick, but the rising tide forced them to risk their lives by making their way ashore on ice floes pushed by the wind. They were found two days later stranded on a small island by a passing farmer and his sons. (LINK21)

Most of the lives lost were a result of vessels foundering or capsizing, but a number of people died as a result of undertaking to return home or to find shelter in the storm.  Violent blizzards and storms continued throughout the month, and Boston residents gave up on trying to clear the streets. No tally of the number who died in that early December storm could ever be made.


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