It was 70 Fahrenheit here in Washington, DC Tuesday morning.
Over the past few days, the media have made much of this cold snap. Capital Weather Gang experts provided in-depth forecasts of what we could expect locally (these seem to be verifying rather nicely), and excellent background material on the expected temperatures versus longstanding area records. Nationally, we riveted our attention on possible impacts of the cold weather on the weekend’s NFL wild-card games (the warm-weather teams did better than some had expected) as well as snowfall in the Midwest. Rush Limbaugh has taken the occasion to slam “the polar vortex hoax.” The weather had major impacts on road and air travel.
But the big news? Arguably the most consequential news? Perhaps it was the school cancellations across the upper tier of states and even into the DC area. You’ll see some talk this morning about how we’ve become a nation of wimps. But the physical reality is that children have higher surface areas relative to their body mass and so have to spend enormous amounts of energy to stay warm. They really do need to be bundled up, even against minor cold. And weather forecasts enabled state and local governments and school officials nationwide make their individual calls with respect to school closings, delays, and other coping strategies.
Contrast this with the so-called Children’s Blizzard, a severe snowstorm in January of 1888, which caught residents of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska and other High Plains states by surprise. You can find some particulars n a Wikipedia entry. From this account:
The blizzard was preceded by a snowstorm on January 5 and 6, which dropped powdery snow on the northern and central plains, and was followed by an outbreak of brutally cold temperatures from January 7 to 11.
The weather prediction for the day was issued by the Weather Bureau [sic], which at the time was managed by Adolphus Greely; it said: “A cold wave is indicated for Dakota and Nebraska tonight and tomorrow; the snow will drift heavily today and tomorrow in Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
On January 11, a strengthening surface low dropped south-southeastward out of Alberta, Canada into central Montana and then into northeastern Colorado by the morning of January 12. The temperatures in advance of the low increased some 20–40 degrees in the central plains (for example, Omaha, Nebraska recorded a temperature of −6 °F (−21 °C) at 7 a.m. on January 11, while the temperature had increased to 28 °F (−2 °C) by 7 a.m. on January 12). The strong surface low rapidly moved into southeastern Nebraska by 3 p.m. on January 12 and finally into southwestern Wisconsin by 11 p.m. that same day.
The blizzard was precipitated by the collision of an immense Arctic cold front with warm, moisture-laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few hours, the advancing cold front caused a temperature drop from a few degrees above freezing to −20 degrees Fahrenheit (−40 °F/−40 °C in some places). This wave of cold was accompanied by high winds and heavy snow. The fast-moving storm first struck Montana in the early hours of January 12, swept through Dakota Territory from midmorning to early afternoon, and reached Lincoln, Nebraska at 3 p.m.
What made the storm so deadly was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of warmer weather that preceded it. In addition, the very strong wind fields behind the cold front and the powdery nature of the snow reduced visibilities on the open plains to zero. People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school, or simply enjoy the relative warmth of the day. As a result, thousands of people—including many schoolchildren—got caught in the blizzard. The death toll was 235. Teachers generally kept children in their schoolrooms. Exceptions nearly always resulted in disaster.
Travel was severely impeded in the days following.
Back in 2004, David Laskin, in his highly-readable book The Children’s Blizzard, wrote a gripping narrative of the storm. He put the death toll higher, somewhere between 250-500. He added details, including these: that the immigrant residents of these high plains hadn’t had sufficient years of experience living in their newly-adopted homeland to comprehend the difference between the High Plains winter threat and that of their European homelands, that the school buildings weren’t sufficiently well-constructed and insulated, and provisioned with firewood, to be defensible against such storms, and that many children had gone to school in shirtsleeves given the preceding warm spell. He also vilified the Signal Service handling of the event. To quote Mr. Laskin: One of the many tragedies of that day was the failure of the weather forecasters, a failure compounded of faulty science, primitive technology, human error, narrow-mindedness, and sheer ignorance. America in 1888 had the benefit of an established, well-funded, nationwide weather service run by a charismatic general – yet the top priority on any given day was not weather, but political infighting. Forecasters – “indications officers,” as they were styled then – insisted their forecasts were correct 83.7 percent of the time for the next twenty-four hours, but they were forbidden to use the term tornado in any prediction; they believed America’s major coastal cities were immune to hurricanes; they relied more on geometry and cartography than on physics in tracking storms; they lacked the means, and for the most part, the desire to perform meteorological research…
…wrote John Wesley Powell of meteorology in 1891. “While the science has not yet reached that stage when directions can be given at what hour it is wise to carry an umbrella on a showery day, it has reached that stage when the great storms and waves of intense heat or intense cold can be predicted for all the land in advance of their coming so as to be of great value to all the industries of the land. All the discomforts of the weather cannot be avoided, but the great disasters can be anticipated and obviated.” Mighty rhetoric – and many believed it. But in truth, when it came to weather prediction, government forecasters in the last decades of the nineteenth century were still relying more on empirical observations and even proverbs… than on sound understanding of the atmosphere. Many of the “great storms and waves of intense heat or intense cold” escaped them altogether – or were mentioned in their daily “indications” too late, too vaguely, too timidly to do anyone any good. When it came to “great disasters,” they knew far less than they thought knew [sic].
It was the age of confidence. Arrogance was epidemic.
The officer in charge of the experimental indications office that had been established in St. Paul for the express purpose of predicting blizzards and outbreaks of extreme cold on the prairie did not entirely miss the January 12 storm. He knew before midnight on January 11 that it would snow in Dakota Territory and Nebraska the following afternoon and get colder that night. His indications “verified.” But they helped few, if any, people in the region escape or protect themselves. Warnings were not posted in time. No one reading the indications for that day would have guessed that an historic storm was bearing down on them. Those in positions of authority neither recognized nor cared about the forecasting failure. To the extent that knuckles got rapped as a result of the storm, it had to do with sleet-covered sugar plantations in the Deep South, not frozen children on the prairie…”
A few closing thoughts. For starters, it’s clear that the science and technology of weather prediction have advanced considerably over the past 126 years. It’s also clear that society has benefited. There’s been no wholesale loss of life (especially schoolkids) to today’s cold snap. In a sense, our nation is far more weather-ready today.
The National Weather Service, local decision makers, and the American public deserve full credit. That said, none of the parties seems to be enjoying such satisfaction. In particular, the language and substantive grounds for criticizing today’s weather service don’t seemed to have changed that much. In part this is because Mr. Laskin’s retrospective only dates back ten years. In part it’s because the art of criticism and finger-pointing has not advanced as rapidly as the science and practice of weather prediction. But in equal measure it’s because progress in meteorological services and supporting research is barely keeping pace with more stringent requirements occasioned by population increase, urbanization, and other social change.
The forecast for the future? Persistence. There’s no chance to rest on our laurels. Researchers, NWS experts, broadcast meteorologists, emergency managers, county and city officials, and many others will have to up their game in coming years if they are to keep weather hazards at bay. No matter how great their improvement, they can expect the critiques to remain unchanged.
Oh. And the public will still need to stay tuned.
 Two months later, another severe blizzard hit the East Coast states: This latter storm came to be known as the Great Blizzard of 1888.