Saturday, Nov. 11, 1911 saw what was probably the most sudden and dangerous cold blast in Midwest American history, the Great Blue Norther of 11/11/11. People who enjoyed a summer-like morning froze to death in heavy snowfall that evening. Blue skies changed to low clouds, driving rain, sleet, hail, thunderstorms, tornadoes and blizzards in half a day. Winds were so violent that they turned buildings into trapezoids.
To better understand what triggered the historic storm on its 100th anniversary and chronicle its impact on Missouri, Patrick Market, a University of Missouri School of Natural Resources atmospheric scientist, and a team of students, analyzed the storm with both modern meteorological tools and dives into the historical records. They’ve created a 21st Century weather model of what happened in the atmosphere and an online map that chronicles the destruction that it brought to the state.
The sudden summer-to-winter cold front fits right into Market’s research. He studies atmospheric dynamics of the world’s biggest storms, particularly how the jet stream interacts with weather fronts. His overall research is aimed to better predict heavy rain and snowfall events. He worked with MU atmospheric science students Evan Kutta and Brian Crow from St. Louis, and Jennifer Power of Durham, to give them insight on the human toll a massive storm can cause. The students pored through state historical records and newspaper accounts to provide a comprehensive account of the Blue Norther’s death and destruction.
Little Warning of the Storm
The students’ research showed Missourians had little warning of the storm. In 1911, commercial radio was virtually non-existent. Most citizens got their news from community daily or weekly newspapers. As the storm raced from northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in just two days, only one Missouri newspaper was able to tell its readers that the unusual summer –like conditions were about to change.
Through newspaper accounts the students learned that the Saturday started as a summer day in Kansas City. Just before noon, the sky was bright blue and the air humid and warm at 76°. As the forecast in the morning Kansas City Times indicated no change, people left their coats in the closet and made it a point to enjoy the pleasant weekend conditions. It was even nicer to the south in Springfield where the thermometer topped 80°.
The Blue Norther burst onto KC with howling northerly winds pushing a thick blanket of dark stratus clouds. The low clouds were bluish-gray, the reason why the phenomena has its colorful name. In 14 hours, the temperature dropped to 11° with rain turning to thunderstorms and hail, then sleet and heavy snow.
In central Missouri, the Blue Norther hit around 2 p.m. and changed warm breezes to howling northerly gales. Old Columbia weather records the students found show that in just one hour the temperature fell from 82° to 38°. At 4 p.m. there was sleet with an air temperature of 30°. By midnight the temperature was just 13°. The 69° temperature differential in one day established a record that has never been broken.
In Tipton, news wire reports of the day after tell of balmy temperatures and azure skies suddenly changing to thunderstorms with hurricane force winds and hail the size of walnuts. A tornado went through the small town, damaging almost every structure.
The same thing happened in Springfield. At 4 p.m. a violent line of thunderstorms preceded the cold wave, creating hailstorms and tornadoes that ripped into the city.
Volunteers combing collapsed buildings for survivors had to call for their winter coats to continue. In Springfield, the temperature plunge was extreme, dropping 70° in 10 hours. A balmy 80° day had turned to a blustery 40° in two hours before hitting 10° after midnight, another 100-year-old record that still stands. Contemporary newspaper accounts claimed the temperature dropped 40° in just one hour. The record drop in Oklahoma City of 66°, where the Blue Norther blew up a huge dust storm, has not been equaled.
The tornadoes, cold and blizzards were only part of the story. The Norther also brought brutal straight-line winds, too. John S. Hazen, the weatherman-in-charge at Springfield in 1911, reported: “Increasing S to SW winds shifting to the NW at 3:45 pm and attaining an extreme velocity of 74 miles for one minute. Considerable damage done to buildings, wires, and trees. Many windows blown in and several people injured. Record high temp. occurred about 2 pm and low temp for this early in the month. Temp fell from 80 to 21 at 7 pm. Cold wave order received and given usual distribution. Hail, sleet, rain, and snow fell. First thunder 4:52 pm. Last 6:10 pm. Storms came from north.”
One woman in the Ozarks recalled that the temperature dropped so rapidly that most of her family’s potato crop, which had been stored in a shed, froze before she and her siblings could move the potatoes to the cellar.
The storm raced through Missouri from northwest to southeast in just 10 hours, finally exiting the state at Sullivan.
A 21st Century Model of a 20th Century Storm
To better understand the storm through modern meteorological models, Market and his team gathered available 1911 U.S. weather data as a starting point.
While meteorologists of 1911 had access to an extensive network of regional U.S. and southern Canadian surface weather reporting stations, they lacked global and upper atmosphere data taken for granted today. Also, forecasters of 100 years ago were only just beginning to comprehend how warm and cold fronts worked. They had no inkling of the jet stream.
As weather balloons were rare in 1911 and satellite and radar data non-existent, Market and team had to extrapolate the 1911 surface temperature, wind and pressure data to determine what was happening in the upper atmosphere.
With this information, Market and team looked for a modern storm that resembled the 11/11/11 event. That model, analyzed with state-of-the-art radar, satellite imagery, global computer model dynamic analysis, and high altitude winds aloft and pressure soundings, would give the team a modern weather picture showing how the storm developed and what caused it to race cross the Midwest.
That effort brought them to a storm that occurred on Jan. 29, 2008. While it was not as fast or strong as the 11/11/11 event – the 2008 temperature drop was from 70° to 15° over a longer period of time – it otherwise matched the timing of the 11/11/11 event. Most importantly, it also was an intense cold weather front hitting an existing warm air mass.
From the 2008 data, Market saw how three separate and unique weather events working in concert created the violence of the 11/11/11 storm.
It started when an intense dome of unusually frigid air over the North Pole had grown so large that it began to ooze south. Then, this cold air mass interacted with a strong jet stream that uncharacteristically helped the storm plunge southward at 50 – 70 mph. Entering the American Midwest, this massive cold blast slammed into a large area of warm and moist air being funneled into the Midwest by unusually strong southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico.
This fast and frigid air mass slammed into the large mass of moist and warm air, pushing it southward and creating a squall line that spawned the thunderstorms and tornadoes. The cold air mass overwhelmed the warmer air, creating sleet and blizzard conditions.
“Blue Northers like the 11/11/11 storm are rare and unique events,” Market said.