Remembering the Great Blizzard of 1978
Few people from these parts will forget what they were doing on January 25th 1978.
It was on that date that a historic winter storm formed and buried much of our region with record snow and wind.
Dropping more than two feet of snow across portions of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan the storm was accompanied by hurricane force winds and was followed by brutal cold! The fierce winter storm paralyzed much of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes.
Interstate systems were completely shut down. The National Guard was deployed to help rescue those who were stranded in the storm and tanks were used to remove disabled semi-trucks along portions of I-65.
Now referred to simply as the "Great Blizzard of '78", the event was the result of a rare merger of storm systems.
Meteorologists began forecasting the potential of a major winter storm days in advance. By the morning of Wednesday January 25th, it had become clear that this storm would become historic in proportions.
Forecasters were watching a clipper system diving south through the Upper Midwest and a weak area of low pressure that had formed across Northern Dixie.
On the afternoon of the 25th, the National Weather Service in Indianapolis issued a Blizzard Warning for the entire state of Indiana! Here's their account of the storm...
AT 345 PM EST ON JANUARY 25TH 1978...INDIANAPOLIS FORECASTERS DENNIS MCCARTHY AND HOBART REEVES ISSUED THE FIRST AND...TO THIS DAY...ONLY BLIZZARD WARNING ENCOMPASSING THE ENTIRE STATE OF INDIANA...UPGRADING THE HEAVY SNOW WARNING ISSUED NEARLY 12 HOURS PRIOR. STILL...FEW PEOPLE COULD FATHOM THE DEVASTATING IMPACT THAT THE COMING ONCE IN A GENERATION BLIZZARD WOULD HAVE ON THEIR LIVES...AS SUCH AN EPIC SNOWSTORM HAD LITTLE EQUAL IN THE CLIMATOLOGICAL RECORD FOR INDIANA.
THE STORM WAS CHARACTERIZED BY A RELATIVELY RARE MERGER OF TWO DISTINCT UPPER LEVEL WAVES...WHICH COMBINED TO CAUSE EXTREME INTENSIFICATION OF A LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM MOVING NORTH FROM THE GULF COAST INTO KENTUCKY AND OHIO. THIS STORM STILL STANDS AS THE LOWEST NON-TROPICAL SURFACE PRESSURE OBSERVED IN THE UNITED STATES.
AT THE TIME THE BLIZZARD WARNING WAS ISSUED...WINDS WERE A MERE 12 MPH. THE WINDS APPROACHED 50 MPH OR MORE BY MIDNIGHT ON THE 26TH...AND CONTINUED TO HOWL THROUGH THE MORNING OF THE 27TH. TEMPERATURES PLUMMETED TO A LOW OF ZERO DEGREES DURING THE STORM...WITH WIND CHILLS APPROACHING -50 DEGREES. SIGNIFICANT SNOWFALL LASTED FOR 31 HOURS AT INDIANAPOLIS...WITH A STORM TOTAL OF 15.5 INCHES BY THE TIME SNOWFALL STOPPED AT 202 AM EST JANUARY 27TH...ON TOP OF THE 5 INCHES THAT WAS ALREADY ON THE GROUND. VISIBILITIES REMAINED BELOW ONE QUARTER MILE FOR 25 HOURS. THE SNOWFALL WAS FOLLOWED BY CONTINUED EXTREME COLD AND HIGH WINDS ... HAMPERING RECOVERY AND RELIEF EFFORTS...AND LEAVING MUCH OF INDIANA AND THE REGION CRIPPLED FOR DAYS.
ACROSS THE MIDWEST...OVER 3 FEET OF SNOW FELL IN SOME AREAS...WITH WIND GUSTS APPROACHING 100 MPH. SNOW DRIFTED AS HIGH AS 25 FEET...BURYING HOMES...AND STOPPING A TRAIN ON THE TRACKS IN PUTNAM COUNTY.
NWS INDIANAPOLIS STAFF WERE TRAPPED IN THE OFFICE DURING THE STORM...FOR UP TO 74 HOURS. WHEN ATTEMPTING TO LEAVE...SOME FOUND THE ENGINE COMPARTMENTS OF THEIR VEHICLES PACKED WITH SNOW.
ELSEWHERE ACROSS INDIANA...OTHER NWS STAFF WERE TRAPPED AT THEIR RESPECTIVE OFFICES AS WELL...FOR UP TO THREE DAYS...BEFORE BEING RELIEVED BY COLLEAGUES ARRIVING VIA SNOWMOBILE. EVANSVILLE WAS THE FIRST OFFICE TO EXPERIENCE THE STORM...WITH SPECIALISTS WILLIAM REILLY AND RAY WILLIAMS ON DUTY FOR 18 HOURS...BEFORE BEING RELIEVED BY A NEARLY FROZEN FRANCIS BURNS...WHO WALKED AT LEAST THREE MILES IN THE TERRIBLE CONDITIONS TO REACH THE OFFICE.
THROUGHOUT THE REGION...HIGHWAYS WERE CLOGGED WITH STRANDED MOTORISTS. DOCTORS AND EMERGENCY PERSONNEL WERE FORCED TO REACH PEOPLE ON SKIS AND SNOWMOBILES. THE INDIANA GOVERNOR SENT NATIONAL GUARD TANKS ONTO INTERSTATE 65 TO REMOVE STRANDED SEMIS. INDIANA BELL WAS FORCED TO HALT ALL PHONE TRAFFIC BUT EMERGENCY CALLS. THE MAYOR OF INDIANAPOLIS MADE HIS WAY TO MAJOR MEDIA OUTLETS...TO DELIVER THE NEWS THAT THE BLIZZARD HAD COMPLETELY SHUT DOWN THE CITY AND THE STATE. AT ONE POINT...OFFICIALS WERE FORCED BY THE FEROCITY OF THE STORM TO PULL POLICE OFF THE STREETS.
By Wednesday evening, the storm moving out of Mississippi had began to rapidly strengthen and began to phase with the Midwest low pressure system as it moved into Eastern Tennessee pulling together deep moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and an arctic air mass that was ejecting out of Canada.
The result was phenomenal intensification as the barometric pressure dropped to an astonishing 958 mb when the storm moved north over Cleveland Ohio. (A record for low pressure at the time for the Central US)
This type of rapid deepening is known as "bombogenesis" and is usually reserved for strong hurricanes. The storm is also referred to as the "Cleveland Superbomb".
Here's a look at one of the few satellite images available of the storm captured on the morning of Thursday January 26, 1978.
The blizzard came on the heals of what had already been a harsh winter. By the time January 1978 was coming to a close, snow depths of up to 40 inches was being measured across parts of Indiana and Michigan.
The blizzard literally buried some houses where drifts measured 10 to 20 feet for parts of the Great Lakes!
This image was taken near Toledo, OH. Courtesy Stephen Chang
Here locally, Kentuckiana only saw on the order of 3 to 6 inches from the blizzard with much heavier totals only a short distance to the north. (Indianapolis picked up 15.5" officially)
However, the blizzard added insult to injury to what had already become a very harsh winter.
Only a week before, a snowstorm dropped anywhere between 6 and 16 inches of snow across portions of Southern Indiana and North-Central Kentucky with Louisville picking up 15.7" from that storm!
That storm held the record as the biggest snowfall for the city until it was eclipsed by the winter storm of January 1994 (Jan. 16/17th - exactly 16 years later) when 15.9 inches fell.
In total, January of 1978 brought an astonishing 28.4 inches of snow to Louisville and to this day holds the record for the most snowfall for any month!
In addition to all the snow, the winter of 1977-78 brought plenty of cold too. It was the last time the Ohio River froze over this far south.
For many folks, myself included, the Great Blizzard of '78 stands as the most impressive winter storm to ever strike this region.
Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org