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The Long Winter of 1880/81

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  • 1 School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
  • | 2 Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
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Abstract

The story of the winter of 1880/81 in the central United States has been retold in historical fiction, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, as well as in local histories and folklore. What story does the meteorological data tell, and how does it measure up when compared to the fiction and folklore? What were the contributing factors to the severity of the Long Winter, and has it been or could it be repeated? Examining historical and meteorological data, reconstructions, and reanalysis, including the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, the Long Winter emerges as one of the most severe since European-descended settlers arrived to the central United States and began documenting weather. Contributing factors to its severity include an extremely negative North Atlantic Oscillation pattern, a mild to moderate El Niño, and a background climate state that was much colder than the twentieth-century average. The winter began early and was particularly cold and snowy throughout its duration, with a sudden spring melt that caused subsequent record-setting flooding. Historical accounts of the winter, including The Long Winter, prove to be largely accurate in describing its severity, as well as its impacts on transportation, fuel availability, food supplies, and human and livestock health. Being just one of the most severe winters on record, there are others in the modern historical record that do compare in severity, providing opportunity for comparing and contrasting the impacts of similarly severe winters.

CURRENT AFFILIATION: NOAA/National Weather Service/Office of the Chief Learning Officer/Warning Decision Training Division, Norman, Oklahoma

Corresponding author: Barbara Mayes Boustead, barbara.mayes@noaa.gov

Abstract

The story of the winter of 1880/81 in the central United States has been retold in historical fiction, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, as well as in local histories and folklore. What story does the meteorological data tell, and how does it measure up when compared to the fiction and folklore? What were the contributing factors to the severity of the Long Winter, and has it been or could it be repeated? Examining historical and meteorological data, reconstructions, and reanalysis, including the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, the Long Winter emerges as one of the most severe since European-descended settlers arrived to the central United States and began documenting weather. Contributing factors to its severity include an extremely negative North Atlantic Oscillation pattern, a mild to moderate El Niño, and a background climate state that was much colder than the twentieth-century average. The winter began early and was particularly cold and snowy throughout its duration, with a sudden spring melt that caused subsequent record-setting flooding. Historical accounts of the winter, including The Long Winter, prove to be largely accurate in describing its severity, as well as its impacts on transportation, fuel availability, food supplies, and human and livestock health. Being just one of the most severe winters on record, there are others in the modern historical record that do compare in severity, providing opportunity for comparing and contrasting the impacts of similarly severe winters.

CURRENT AFFILIATION: NOAA/National Weather Service/Office of the Chief Learning Officer/Warning Decision Training Division, Norman, Oklahoma

Corresponding author: Barbara Mayes Boustead, barbara.mayes@noaa.gov
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