February 3…1972

As a winter storm spins up out west, with Denver looking forward to a foot or so of accumulation and the middle of the United States awaiting its turn, let’s pause to remember what we’re told was the deadliest blizzard in world history…bar none.

Care to guess who got hit? Look to a country much in the news these days, but for other reasons.

The Iran blizzard of 1972 – which ran from February 3-9 – began on this day. Here are some statistics. Across rural areas in northwestern and central parts of the country? Ten feet of snow. And in places in southern Iran? Up to 26-28 feet, depending on the source you consult.

That’s an average of four feet of snow, per day, for a week.

Lethal. Whole villages were buried, with no survivors. 4000 people died.

Tragic.

So no complaining from out there in the Midwest. No more cheap talk here of Snowmageddon, which dropped a piddling 18-32 inches of snow in Washington, DC, in February of 2010. To get the Iranian blizzard, you have to multiply our figure not by two, or by five, but by ten.

Here are some questions, for you and for me.

We haven’t been keeping actual records for all that long. What are the chances that 1972 Iranian snowfall was the actual record for that part of the world, if we could go back through the last 100,000 years or more?

Probably slim.

Would the paleo record beat the current one by just an inch or so, or a foot? Or could it have been double the 1972 amount? Would the paleo record offer up an example where four feet of snow fell per day, but for two weeks straight?

Who knows?

Is Iran the only place in the world where such a weeklong snow could occur? How about the rest of Europe? What about Asia or the Americas? We’re told that the world record snowfalls for a 24-hour period are held here in the United States. Silver Lake, Colorado is said to have gotten something like 6-7 feet in April of 1921. Could a storm set up that would deliver that much snow there or anywhere else in the U.S. each day for a week? [The Silver Lake storm apparently delivered something like 100 inches measured over its full duration, far short of such a stupefying figure.]

Given the right place, the right circumstances, what’s the largest loss of life that might result?

What might the economic loss be?

Meteorologists might be able to construct this or that argument to the effect that a 25-30-foot snowfall here over a week’s time is an impossibility. Should you believe them?

By now we all recognize the point. Our record-keeping is brief. It covers only the merest instant, the last moment of human experience, let alone the time that preceded us. As far as we can tell from examining proxy data and recovering the prehistoric record, the weather is resolutely variable on every time scale extending out as far as we’ve been able to trace back.

So the chances that we know what the worst-case scenarios are…whether we’re talking winter storms, or riverine floods, or drought, or tornadoes or hurricanes? Actually pretty slim. Extend that line of thought to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis…and you get the same answer.

Risk managers will tell us that just because such staggering but rare events are possible, doesn’t mean it pays to prepare for them. Right or wrong, the rest of us have de facto bought into that argument. We’re making individual and corporate and political decisions at every level that turn our backs on the possibility of such risks. Saving a lot of money. So far. But setting up black-swan events for our future.

Or that of our kids.

So…now that we’ve looked back, let’s turn and look ahead. And let’s be humble. Let’s remember that in weather, as in athletics, records are made to be broken.

Extremes of unimaginable scale and magnitude lie ahead. They will trigger staggeringly consequential disasters…disruptions that will dictate our destiny. What cities, states, and countries of the world experience these misfortunes…and in which historical order…will not just edit our future but write it.

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3 Responses to February 3…1972

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, you seem to say that we should divert resources from funding current options with certain positive pay-offs in order to guard against extreme possibilities which have not occurred in recent memory but, because the known record is so short, may have once occurred and may, at some unknown, possibly distant, time, occur again. I don’t find that argument at all sensible. If we imagine the worst possible future scenarios and seek to guard against them, we’ll actually harm our futures by slowing growth and innovation, leaving us with less capacity to respond if and when these unknown events arise. Building nuclear war shelters might have been sensible in the 1950s, building anti-asteroid shelters now wouldn’t be.

    • Many thanks, Michael…and thanks as well for your comment on an earlier post as well.

      Your point is spot on…actually we see this regard to tornado hazard mitigation measures as well. The imprint of tornado damage is so highly-localized that measures such as tornado shelters or so-called safe-rooms, which cost the order of a couple of thousand dollars, don’t look particularly effective. Very hard to argue for such expenditures.

      My message was really along the lines of “we may imagine from our personal experiences spanning a few decades that we comprehend the extremes that nature can deliver…but we tend to underestimate…and not by a little (factors of 10%, say) but a lot (factors of 10).”

      And while I agree with you that we shouldn’t all build asteroid shelters, I do think that NASA’s survey of so-called Near-Earth Objects, and thoughts at NASA about how to divert the course of an asteroid, might be one of the most cost-effective things NASA does.

      Please keep those perspectives coming! When it comes to the production of understanding, colloquy beats soliloquy hands-down.

  2. Jim Brown says:

    I found your site via Judith Curry’s site and am enjoying your posts. This compilation of newspaper clippings regarding extreme climate events from the past, opened my eyes http://www.Real-Science.com/bad-weather . Whatever weather is happening now has happened before, it seems.

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