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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