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The Most Intense Arctic Outbreak Occurred 124 Years Ago This Week

Updated: Feb 18

All temperatures mentioned in this article are Fahrenheit

The Great White Hurricane. The Great Blizzard of 1978. The Blizzard of the Century. Snowvember. These are some of the names used to describe powerful, unforgettable snowstorms across the United States. There is one storm that could lay the claim to being the king of them all.

The Great Blizzard of 1899, also known as the "Snow King," brought not only three feet of snow to some areas, but also what may have been the strongest outbreak of arctic air in the country's history across the eastern United States. Without a doubt, this was one of the most severe one-two punches delivered by winter to the country.

The first punch was the blizzard. From February 11-14, a widespread two to two and a half feet of snow fell in a swath that stretched from West Virginia to Connecticut. Washington D.C. saw just over 20 inches, which makes the snow king the second largest one storm snowfall in the city's history, behind only the Knickerbocker Storm. The highest storm total reported was 34 inches in Cape May, New Jersey.

Snow is removed from New York City. Photo: Library of Congress

Because it was a blizzard, fierce winds blew the snow around, causing massive drifts. This storm's drifts are comparable to the two blizzards that hit the United States in 1978. For days on end, all travel was halted due to these drifts. The main mode of transportation in the late 1800s was horse-drawn carriages, which were nearly impossible to navigate through such heavy snowfall. Snow removal was time-consuming and inefficient. Long lines of horse-drawn carts loaded with snow were seen removing snow from New York City streets.

The snow was not contained to the mid-Atlantic. This storm is one of only a few in the club to bring measurable snow to Florida. While snow in the panhandle is not as uncommon as some may believe, snow falling deep into the peninsula is. During this storm, snow was reported in Fort Myers. Until a 1977 event brought snow to Miami, this was the farthest south snow had been reported in Florida.

While the blizzard alone was enough to make US weather history, it was quickly overshadowed by the second punch. This punch came in the form of an arctic blast, but not just any arctic blast. These blasts are common after major snowstorms in the northern tier of the United States. This one, on the other hand, was not limited to the northern tier. This one covered almost the entire contiguous United States.

Tallahassee snowball fight in 1899.

An astonishing 45 states saw temperatures drop below zero. As with the blizzard, Florida was not spared from the arctic air. Tallahassee, the state capital, experienced a low temperature of -2°. This is the only time in recorded history that the temperature fell below zero in the sunshine state.

Other low temperatures recorded in the south during this blast include -9° in Georgia, -12° in Arkansas and an astonishing -29° in Missouri.

The arctic front did not stop after slashing through Florida. This was one of the few cold fronts to pass through the state and continue southward. The front caused massive waves on the Cuban coast, causing some buildings to be damaged.

Another unusual occurrence caused by this event was the freezing of the entire Mississippi River. The entire length of the river was covered in standing or floating ice. On February 17, residents of New Orleans witnessed ice chunks float into the Gulf of Mexico.

With temperatures so low in the deep south, one might believe that temperatures in the northern tier were truly incredible. And you'd be correct. Many of the all-time low temperatures set during this outbreak still stand nearly 125 years later. Temperatures in the northern plains ranged from the negative 20s to the negative 40s. In Montana, the coldest temperature recorded was -61°, the coldest of this outbreak.

Keep in mind that these are air temperatures. Wind chill is a relatively new concept that was not calculated in the 1800s. With an arctic front this strong, winds were likely whipping, resulting in truly remarkable feels-like temperatures.

In the end, the arctic blast contributed significantly to February 1899 being one of the coldest months ever recorded in the United States.  1899 is the second coldest February in the contiguous United States (dating back to 1895). In ten states, this was the coldest or second coldest February on record.

More than 100 people died after the cold finally subsided, many of whom died from hypothermia. The cold also had a significant impact on crops and livestock, which were decimated in some areas.



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