Tuesday, January 1, 2008


As we celebrate the start of Winter here in frozen Chicago, the old timers can recall the extremes of winters past.

The Great Blizzard of February 1899 swept through the East and the Deep South with unprecedented cold and snow. While it was cold in the North, the cold in the South was especially remarkable and also damaging because they grow crops there in the winter. Several states recorded their lowest temperatures in recorded history, including sunny Florida where on February 14th, Tallahassee recorded a low of -2, which, to this day is the only sub-zero reading in Florida history. Two days earlier, blizzard conditions were reported North of Tampa along the West coast of Florida.

Some of the other notable lows in the South that week included (all Fahrenheit temperatures) -10 in Birmingham, AL, -9 in Atlanta, GA., -1 in Mobile, AL, +7 in New Orleans, -12 in Little Rock, AR., -8 in Dallas, TX, and +4 in San Antonio, TX. In Mobile, AL, the high was only 21, the lowest high temperature in its history. Other all-time lows in that cold snap included Washington D.C. with -15(and 21 inches of snow), and Pittsburgh, PA, with -20. Even Miami, FL. posted a rare freeze with a low of 29 on Valentine's Day, and snow was reported as far South as Fort Myers.

Brownsville, TX, down on the Mexican border reported a low of +16 the first night and +12 the following night. Other record lowest temperatures by state that week still standing today are Minden, LA., with -16, Milligan, OH. with -39, and Monterey, VA. with -29. Even Cuba, then part of the U.S., reported hard frosts which severely damaged crops.

The Siberian cold snap caused widespread damage to cattle and citrus crops throughout the South, despite accurate forecasting several days in advance. In New Orleans, for example, the Weather Bureau issued a special bulletin on the 12th, warning of still colder weather. The early vegetable and orange crops were total losses. The freeze benefited the rice land because there was an inch of snow on the ground and ice 2 inches in thickness.

The Atlanta, GA. Weather Bureau found a silver lining, despite the loss of much of the peach crop: "The freezing and thawing will improve the condition of the soil and kill insects injurious to plant life." The Jacksonville, FL. Weather Bureau telegraphed freeze warnings to 118 stations to apprise the public of the severe cold. "Railroads notified fruit and vegetable growers along their lines, cold wave and frost signals were sounded by locomotives and river steamers, and along the 400 miles of the Florida Coast Line every section was promptly served." As a result, farmers were able to take steps to protect their crops, which included wrapping, banking and even covering orange trees, and building fires. Despite these steps, many cattle, sheep and horses died from exposure, as the unofficial temperatures dropped as low as -4 in the Western district of Florida.


The coldest temperature in the U.S. was, to nobody's surprise, in northern Alaska, in 1971, when the mercury dipped to -80. (actually, it wasn't mercury, which freezes at -39.) In the continental U.S., Rogers Pass, Montana reported a low of -70 on January 20, 1954. It is located in mountainous and heavily forested terrain near the Continental Divide at 5470 feet elevation.

Every state except Hawaii has experienced sub-zero temperatures. The coldest in Hawail was +12 at Mauna Kea Observatory in May, 1979. But that was measured at almost 14,000 feet elevation where snow is frequent. Illinois' coldest occurred in January, 1999 in Congerville, where the temperature dropped to -36. Other notable state extremes include Wisconsin, with -55 at Couderay, in February, 1996; Utah with -69 at Peter's Sink (8092 elevation) in February, 1985; and Indiana, with -36 at New Whiteland in January, 1994.

Chicago's coldest was -27 back in 1984, I remember it well because a builder friend of mine called me that morning and asked if I would visit a vacant solar envelope house he had recently built. Because that style of house relies on passive solar energy, and double walls separated by a foot of insulation space, it didn't contain a furnace. Anyway, he wanted me to report the inside temperature in the house. I went to the house with the kids, and although it had a Franklin stove in the living room, it wasn't lit. The inside temperature was 62, perhaps a little uncomfortable, but no freezing pipes.

In some other unusual weather extremes, if you're in Rapid City, S.D., and you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes. On January 10, 1911, the temperature there was 55 at 7 A.M. and dropped to 8 by 7:15 A.M. Then it warmed up and two days later on January 12th, the mercury dropped from 49 at 6 A.M. to -13 by 8 A.M. It can go the other way also. In nearby Spearfish, S.D., on January 22, 1943, the Chinook winds came through and the temperature rose from -4 to +45 in 2 minutes.

The lowest recorded temperature in the world was -129 at Vostok, Antarctica, in July 1983. In all fairness that temperature was recorded at an elevation of 11,220 feet on top of the ice sheet. Incidentally, the warmest recorded temperature in Antarctica, was +59 on the coast in January, 1974. The coldest recorded temperature in the Northern hemisphere was -90 in two Siberian towns in 1982 and 1933. Extreme cold is very common there. In Verkhoyansk, Siberia, the average January temperature is -59.

The wettest place in the world is Lloro, Colombia, where the average annual precipitation is 523 inches, over a 29 year period. Essentially, it pretty much rains all the time there, as it does in some places in Hawaii. The driest place is also in South America, in Arica, Chile, in the Atacama Desert which receives 0.03 inches of rain per year, over a period of 59 years. Arica actually goes without rain for years at a time.

So next time you complain about the weather, remember, it can always be worse.




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