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So you think that it's cold and snowy this winter?

January 19, 2009 - Michael Palmer
It was cold last week, really cold, the coldest it had been in 13 years, and since 1996 we had not seen temperatures of minus double digits.

Okay so ..... you think it was cold, well let’s go back a few decades to 1977 and 1978.

The type of weather anomalies that occurred in the United States during January 1977 was typical of a planetary-scale wave phenomenon called stratospheric sudden warming (SSW). So what is SSW? According to the weather geeks: specific changes in weather parameters nearly always accompany SSW. Blocking ridges (intensified high-pressure cells) develop over the oceans, the North Pole warms, mid-latitudes cool, and continental temperatures plunge. These characteristics usually persist for at least a month. When the SSW is strong, as in January 1958, 1963, and 1977, the accompanying weather anomalies can be unusually severe.

So what exactly does that mean? In January 1977 the average temperature was 13.8 degrees Fahrenheit, it was the coldest month on record. It never rose to freezing that month, the first January that had occurred. I remember there were only two or three days all month that the sun showed through the clouds. Then the state wide blizzard hit on January 28.

It was really cold and snowy, but it wasn’t all bad news. The lakes were frozen over so solid that we drove our trucks onto the ice and had races around the islands on our motorcycles. We had ice fishing huts that were on the lake all winter long, I think some of the old guys were getting their mail at the lake. (Note: The ice this year is not safe as of yet, extended cold is required for thick ice.)

We thought that was the roughest winter we would ever see, WRONG!

The very next winter there was “A storm of unprecedented magnitude,” that is what the National Weather Service terms the blizzard.

It began as a thunderstorm, lightning and rain, temperatures in the 40’s and then the ice began to form. The winds kicked up and power lines snapped before dawn on Thursday, January 26, 1978. The Blizzard of ’78 continued through Thursday and into Friday. What occurred on January 26th, 1978 in Ohio was not a blizzard. What did occur was even rarer and even more dangerous: a severe blizzard, the worst of winter storms. The National Weather Service defines a "severe blizzard" as a storm with winds of 45 miles per hour or greater; a great density of falling or blowing snow; and temperatures of 10 degrees or less.

In fact, winds gusted to more than 100 miles per hour, with sustained winds in the 45-60 mph range and temperatures dropped below zero. Record snowfalls were recorded in many areas; 21 inches fell in my backyard as the storm set records for all-time low barometric pressure readings.

The Blizzard of 1978 was, in fact, the worst storm to ever occur in Ohio. My grandfather, parents, sisters, the neighbors and a foreign exchange student from Japan all huddled in the basement around an old gas stove. There was a 28 foot snow drift that covered the road in front of the house, there were many huge drifts statewide. We had a pickup truck with a snow plow, but it was buried under one such drift that began at the back porch steps and gradually grew up and over the location where the day before had been a 3 car garage. Large excavation equipment and dump trucks were used to clear the highways and dig out stranded residents.

Our modern society is very dependent on electricity and highway travel, transportation, business, industry, and schools were closed statewide for two days and for a week where we lived at the time.

We were fortunate to have a freezer full of meat, a pantry with pasta and soups plus we canned our own vegetables from the garden. We boiled snow from the drift and used it for drinking water and to flush the toilet in the bathroom we kept from freezing with a kerosene heater. I had two cocoon style arctic sleeping bags left from the previous winter of ice fishing and we would take turns stretching out on a real bed in the arctic chill of the upstairs bedroom.

There was plenty of snow to shovel while we waited for the snow plows to come. When the electricity returned, we had many pipes to replace in the house, a new toilet to install in the upstairs bathroom and memories that would last a lifetime.


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