Arctic Blast!

Arctic Blast! by: Scott Doering

A Look Back at the Bitterly Cold End of December 1863 through the Early Part of January 1864

Arctic outbreaks are nothing news. The most significant recent Arctic outbreaks occurred a little over a year ago, from December 23rd, 2017 through January 5th, 2018. Bone-chilling temperatures gripped a good portion of the lower 48 states, from the Northern Rockies, south to Texas and even the deep-south. The Great Lakes and the East Coast were not spared by the cold. Several locations experienced one of their coldest late Decembers through early January period on record. Wind chill of 50 below to 60 degrees below zero was observed in the Dakotas and Minnesota on December 30th – January 1st. Mount Washington in New Hampshire recorded a temperature of -36° on the morning of January 6th. When combined with 92 mph winds, the wind chill was an astonishing -92°F!

The image above shows temperature ranking from December 23rd, 2017 through January 5th, 2018. Any location with a 1 means it was the coldest Dec 23 through Jan 5 on record. The image is from the Southeast Regional Climate Center’s Climate Perspectives, via

Was the cold at the end of December through the first part of January 2018 a surprise? Nope! Severe Arctic outbreaks like the one above are typically well forecast days in advance. Meteorologist and climatologist at the Climate Prediction Center analyze various climate signals, or oscillations when issuing their 6-10 Day and 8-14 Day Outlooks. 

The image above is the Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 Day Outlook issued on December 23rd, 2017. The graphic is a forecast of temperature anomalies for December 29th, 2017 through January 2nd, 2018. The darker the purple, like over the eastern half of the lower 48, the higher the confidence for below average temperatures. Meteorologist today rely on weather models and observations to monitor incoming bone-chilling temperatures.  Wind chill advisories and warnings are issued, usually, 12 to 24 hours in advance, so people can be prepared before heading out. Today we have a wind chill graph which informs people how long they can stay outside before getting frostbite. Wind chills were introduced in the 1970s as a way to express the severity of the weather.  Back in 1863, weather forecasts were none existent. Arctic cold waves were brutal and caused significant hardship in early Americans. The weather was documented during this time period by meteorological observers for the Smithsonian Institution, Signal Service reports (Fort Data), and Civil War Diaries. A diary by Samuel A. Agnew in northeastern Mississippi wrote about the cold, saying “It is severely cold – as cold as it ever gets in this country…”

Beginning on December 31st, 1863, a horrific snowstorm with gale force winds, (39 to 54 mph) and extreme cold impacted the Midwest, from Iowa to Ohio. The significant blowing and drifting snow blocked highways and railroads, with some areas, like Galesburg, Illinois failing to receive mail from Chicago for a week. Elsewhere in Illinois, “500 head of sheep perished under snow-drifts in Menard County. All young pigs that were not very well protected died, either from the snow drifting or from the cold. Twenty five per cent of the sucking calves were lost. Many fat hogs, and partially so, were smothered beneath the snow or died from their piling – piling on top of each other.” Livestock across the Midwest perished due to massive snow drifts and the extreme cold.

Temperatures plunged 30 to 60 degrees in less than a day in some places. In Welshfield, OH, the temperature fell from 40° on December 31st at 10 pm, to -14° January 2. “The people being wholly unprepared for so sudden and so great a fall of temperatures, much damage was done.” Easton, OH fell 61° in 12 hours, and Urbana dropped 45° in just 10 hours. In Ottawa, Illinois, on January 1st, the weather was intensely cold. One man in this city froze to death but a short distance from his own house.  Also a man and his wife, and their span of horses, within two miles of this station perished.  The observer from Galesburg wrote, “Such a storm and such cold are seldom experienced here.” In St. Louis, “the thermometer sank to 26 degrees below zero on the night of 31st of December, and remained below zero for nearly two weeks.” Fruit trees heavily damaged by the prolonged cold. Raspberries and blackberry bushed not protected were severely injured.

The following information from the Arctic blast are from the meteorological observers for the Smithsonian Institution. The information was published in the Bi-Monthly Report of The Agricultural Department for January and February 1864. (Source) The reports were nearly quoted word for word.

Fond Du Lac County, Wisconsin, Jan 1st – “Wind north, extremely cold and blustering; snowed all night, and drifted all day; highways and railroad blockaded; thermometer 35 degrees below zero.” Fond Du Lac County, Wisconsin, Jan 2nd – “Wind northwest; thermometer 38 degrees below zero. The coldest day and hardest storm ever known in Wisconsin.” Jan 6th “measured the snow; found it 24.5 inches on level.”

Mr. John Hill of Petersburg, Menard County Illinois – “500 head of sheep perished under snow-drifts in Menard county. All young pigs that were not very well protected died, either from the snow drifting or from the cold. Twenty five per cent of the sucking calves were lost. Many fat hogs, and partially so, were smothered beneath the snow or died from their piling – piling on top of each other.”

Adams County, Iowa – “The coldest day was Jan 1st; thermometer 24.5 degrees below zero. During the first three days of January, the thermometer kept below zero all the time.”

St. Louis, Missouri – “January 1 – The thermometer sank to 26 degrees below zero on the night of 31st of December, and remained below zero for nearly two weeks. On the morning of 31st it was 16° above. Soon a snow-storm set in, and by three pm the thermometer indicated 10 degrees below zero, with a gale blowing from nearly due west. Stock has suffered severely. Horses, mules, cows and hogs, more or less, have perished in the storm. Our peach trees are killed to the ground. Nearly all our heart-cherries the same. Quinces, fully one half killed. Pear trees, much damage to tender varieties; young wood nearly all killed. Vineyards badly injured.”

New Castle, Indiana – “Thermometer at 2 pm, December 31, 35 degrees above zero. Thermometer at 5 am, January 1, 19 degrees below zero; a change of 58 degrees in 15 hours.”

The following communication was received and read before the Cincinnati Horticultural Society

Bardstown, Kentucky – “On the night of December 31 it turned suddenly cold; the thermometer suddenly sunk upwards of 50 degrees that night; and next morning at 8 it stood at 8 degrees below zero.”

Cynthiana, Kentucky – “On the 31st of December we had a very warm day, with moderate rain. That night within the space of 12 hours the thermometer fell 54 degrees, and during the 1st, and for two weeks continually, it was from 10 degrees below to 15 above.”

Additional reports from the Bi-Monthly Report from The Agricultural Department for March and April 1864. (Source)

South Hartford, New York – “January 1; the month commenced with a fine drizzling rain which continued until 2:30 pm; thermometer indicating 42°. At 7 am of the 2nd the temperature had fallen to zero, being a change of 42° in seventeen hours.”

Urbana, Ohio – December 31, a sudden and extreme change during the night. At 9 pm the thermometer 34°; At 7 am, January 1, the thermometer was down to 11 below zero.

Eaton, Ohio – December 31, “At 7 pm the mercury stood at 45°. It was not noticed at 9, but it much have been down nearly to zero. At 7 am, January 1, it stood -16°; being a change of 61°

Welshfield, Ohio – The temperature fell from 40°, December 31, at 10 pm to -14° January 2. The people being wholly unprepared for so sudden and so great a fall of temperatures, much damage was done.

South Bend, Indiana – “Seven inches of snow on the 31st of December. Temperature at 9 pm, 18°; fell thirty-eight degrees by 7 am next morning, January 1.”

Winnebago, Illinois – “December 30, sky cloudless till about 4 pm, when a low bank of clouds was observed along the southwestern horizon, which overspread the sky during the evening. December 31, a severe snow-storm set in soon after midnight and continued through the day. The snow ceased soon after nightfall. The wind continued blowing a gale through the night, with heavy drift and increasing cold. The day following (January 1) was one of the most severe on record in this latitude.”

Ottawa, Illinois – “January 1, weather intensely cold; one man in this city froze to death but a short distance from his own house; also a man and his wife, and their span of horses, within two miles of this station. Snow, of the 30th and 31st December and today one foot in depth. It is badly drifted, and the cars have stopped running.”

Galesburg, Illinois – “Very cold high wind night on December 31; snow in motion; cattle, horses, and hogs suffered greatly, and many froze. The roads were blocked up, and no mail was received from Chicago for a week. Such a storm and such cold are seldom experienced here.”

Sandwich, Illinois – “One of the most terrible snow-storms ever witnessed here, accompanied with severe cold, visited us at the close of the old year and the beginning of the new. It began the last day of December to storm moderately from the north; at 3 am, January 1, it began to increase in violence, and continued until it become impossible for man or beast to withstand its violence; a 7 am, January 1, the mercury marked -26°, and snow falling rapidly; railroads became blocked, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy road was so obstructed that for one week no mail express passed this (Sandwich) station. Many cattle perished in the corn fields; stock in transportation on the car perished by hundreds, and thousands of fowls froze upon their perches. The depth of snow falling here was about two and a half feet. The extreme cold continued about eight days. Peaches are destroyed, that is, the fruit germs, and in many instances the trees are ruined. The fruit germs upon nearly all early varieties are also destroyed. Early Richmond cherries also, and probably plums. Peaches are said to be destroyed more than a hundred miles south of Memphis.”

Pekin, Illinois – “December 31. I was up several times last night; the wind increased in force; the snow came faster each time I looked out; 4 pm, the wind is from northwest; it is so severe that I cannot at times walk against it without using all my strength. I do not remember ever experiencing so severe a snow-storm; it continued about the same to midnight. After 8 pm the wind was from the west.”

Augusta, Illinois – “December 31. From 9 pm last night to sunrise this morning, snow fell to the depth of about seven or eight inches, and it continued to snow, more or less, nearly all day; the wind blew very hard, and the snow drifted so much that it was very difficult to tell the average depth; it was a very severe storm; I remember but one equal to it since I have resided in Augusta, from 1833 to the present time.”

Waverly, Illinois – “A severe snow-storm began at 10 pm on the 30th December, and continued over the 31st, the wind blowing almost a gale some of the time from the northwest, with the thermometer almost at zero; about ten or twelve inches of snow fell, and it lays piled up in every conceivable shape. The thermometer -24° this morning, (January 1.) The storm must have obstructed railroads and killed much stock for farmers.”

Athens, Missouri – “This month of January is the coldest weather that has been experienced here for a number of years. From the 23rd of December to the 23rd of January the ground has been covered with snow to the depth of seventeen inches on a level, and drifted to the height of the fences. Many roads became impassable, the general depth of the drifts being six feet. We have had as deep snows before, but not so cold, not drifted so badly. The timber was loaded down with snow, and much of it broken, especially the pin oak and black jack, which had the leaves on. Great number of cattle, sheep, hogs, and fowl have perished, and many persons have been frozen to death. Twelve inches of snow fall on the 28th of December; none on the 29th or 30th, one inch on the 31st; one inch on the 1st of January.”

Fontenelle, Nebraska – “December 31 is the coldest and most disagreeable day experienced in this Territory by the oldest settlers. Ground frozen eight inches deep.”

Geneva, Wisconsin – “January 1, snow-drifts are from four to twelve feet high; roads running north and south are impassable. Large number of quails are found frozen in the snow.”

Beloit, Wisconsin – “The 1st day of January (mean temperature -25°) was the coldest day on this record for fourteen years, and the first week was five degrees colder than any week during that time, but the amount of snow was not so great as it has been. It was drifted terribly, and blocked the railroad trains for several days. I saw some drifts in a railroad cut east of here fourteen feet high.”

Algona, Iowa.—On the 30th December, at 9 pm, the wind began to drift the snow, which had fallen to the depth of five and a half inches on the26th and 27th, and continued to increase all night, and by daylight of the 31st it was blowing a hurricane, which continued all day and till New Year’s morn with the same violence apparently. At no time in the whole day could a house be seen at six rods’ distance. The extreme cold in the face of the wind was, at 7 am,—15°; at 10 a.m.,—17°; at 2 p.m.—20°; at 6 p.m.,—24° at 9 p. m., —26°. In some places there is no snow; at others it is ten feet deep, according to location, and considerable damage has been done by blowing down hay and straw stacks and timber. The early part of January was clear and no snow.

Mount Pleasant, Iowa.—“Thursday, December 31, has been the most stormy and dismal day that I have ever known in this latitude. The wind blew a gale all day from the northwest, and the driving snow rendered the air dark, and made it almost impossible to go about out of doors. More stock died on this night in Iowa than was ever before known in any month of time; cattle, sheep, and hogs were often buried in snow-banks, where they perished by being smothered, &c. One man, in this county, lost fourteen head of cattle.”

Muscatine, Iowa.—“December 31, the most severe day of the winter so far; a most powerful northwester with snow-squalls and the air full of snow; thermometer below zero all day. The storm began in the evening of December 30; some flying clouds appearing and the cold wind beginning to rise at 10 p. m.; snow-squalls began in the night and continued all day the 31st. On the 5th of January the mail got through from the east the first time for six days; many cattle have frozen because they had not good shelter. January 2.—To-day has been a very severe one; thermometer —26° in the morning, and the average of the day—14.3°; not windy, and the snow appears to be done drifting. Yesterday and the day before were the severest which have been seen here for ten years. Drifting snow has completely blocked the railroads and country roads. The snow is about eighteen inches deep in the woods, most of it damp, frozen hard, so it will drift no more. January 8.—The past week has been about as cold as any I ever experienced; thermometer averaging —10° for eight days in succession. About one hundred head of cattle and many hogs froze to death in this county on the night of December 31; but they were not properly sheltered. Sheep crowded into sheds, and the snow drifting upon them, they piled up, and some smothered, and others froze—Foster.”

Prospect Hill, Floyd County, Iowa.—“The steadiness of cold from the eve of December 30 to the morning of the 10th of January has not been equalled in seven years and two months, the period my register covers. There was no visible increase of snow here, in the woods, on the 31st of December; still, on the prairie, the position of the sun was not apparent, except faintly, at 9 a. m., on account of blowing snow.—James Coley”

Fort Madison, Iowa – “The last day of 1863 was the most severe storm we have had here since this country was settled, and the year 1864 was ushered in by said storm. The night before New Year’s day was the most particularly severe, with high wind from the northwest and drifting snow; some stock was frozen to death, and a number of chickens. Nine and a quarter inches of snow feel on the 27th of December; note fell again until the 2nd of January, when there was half an inch, and three and a half inches fell on the 4th.”

Iowa City, Iowa.—“On the last day of the year (mean temperature —21°) commenced the most violent snow storm known in this region of country; snowing all day and night, and wind blowing violently ail the time.”

Natchez, Mississippi, on December 31st – “The morning was sultry and close; thermometer 80°; wind south; cloudy. About 9 am a remarkable change occurred, and the wind increased and became chilly, and then stinging cold, with occasional warmer gusts. What was remarkable this cold wind blew strongly directly up the river, or from a point south 30° west. At 12 pm the ground began to freeze and the wind had veered round to west. At 7 pm the thermometer stood at 23°, and next morning at 10°, and in some localities in the country as low as 8° above zero. The cold lasted till about the 10th of January.”