I’m slowly reading a very good book, one that I should have read during the summer. As long and hot as the summer was, it would have been a good time for the shivers. For most of my adult life, I’ve been an armchair adventurer, reading about the remote and dangerous places of the world from the relative safety of my living room and dreaming of being there. This book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places by Bill Streever, brought back my longing to get out there and discover the earth for myself. (Oh, to be independently wealthy!)
Streever’s book is a journal of sorts, sharing his adventures in the frozen north near his home in Alaska and in other cold regions around the globe. The book is peppered with detailed historical accounts of intrepid explorers, natural history, biology, myths, weather, geography, ecology, and physics. It’s a compendium of scientific tidbits and there’s a lot to take in.
One particular essay captured my attention, not only for the catastrophe it described, but for the fact that it was a weather anomaly. I’ve always been interested in weather patterns and like to read about anything that occurs outside them. We hear so much about global warming and its effects on the weather, I thought this disastrous event was particularly interesting, having happened more than 100 years ago.
In January 1888, snow was forecast for Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. What came was an unexpected blizzard of Biblical proportions:
“In places, temperatures dropped eighteen degrees in less than five minutes. In Helena, Montana, the temperature dropped from just over forty degrees to nine below in less than five hours. In Keokuk, Iowa, it dropped fifty-five degrees in eight hours. These temperatures do not include the windchill. They are straight temperatures, read from thermometers. Windchill temperatures were colder than forty below.”
One Weather Bureau forecaster described the approaching storm: “a peculiar hush prevailed over everything. In the next minute the sky was completely overcast by a heavy black cloud… and the wind veered to the west (by the southwest quadrant) with such violence as to render the observer’s position very unsafe. …In five minutes after the wind changed the outlines of objects fifteen feet away were not discernible.”
Streever said “people found cattle frozen in place, standing as if grazing.” About 20,000 people were “overtaken and bewildered by the storm.” One young schoolteacher dove headfirst into a haystack and stayed there without food and water for three days. She was rescued, but eventually died from infection when her lower limbs (which were closest to the outside) were amputated due to frostbite. The death toll was estimated at around 250.
Because the storm hit in the middle of the day, many children were trapped and died in their schoolrooms. It has since been called the School Children’s Blizzard.
As I read these passages about the “freak” storm, a poem by William Stafford came to mind. The title is Torque and the last two lines are :
The world looks tame,
but it might go wild, any time.
Global warming or not, the Earth can go wild, any time.
Click here for the satellite image from our own Great Blizzard of March 13, 1993.