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Category: Met 101/Weather History

AlabamaWXTra: The November 1950 Cold Wave

| 9:00 am November 23, 2015
Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge.

Alabamians paid little attention to the weather forecast on Thanksgiving morning, November 23, 1950. The Birmingham News carried a lead article about the many blessings of the day, including bountiful food, talking about the day’s candied yams, crisp white celery, plump olives and a golden brown roasted turkey. Headlines told of a Thanksgiving Eve crash between two Long Island Railroad trains in New York City that killed 76 people. There were hopes that the Korean War might be ending, bolstered by hints that China might be willing to sit down for peace talks.

Over 36,000 people made their way to Legion Field for the annual Crippled Children’s Classic at Legion Field. The game featured the Phillips Red Raiders and Woodlawn Colonels. It would raise $95,000 for the new Crippled Children’s Hospital. As the game kicked off at 2 p.m., the temperature at the Birmingham Airport was a balmy 70 degrees.

The fine holiday weather belied the fact that a major cold wave was overspreading the U.S. east of the Rockies. Birmingham’s official weatherman, Charles Bradley, warned that the mild afternoon and nice weather was going to be followed by a quick turn to winter. The afternoon highs near 70 would be replaced with overnight lows in the 30s. Highs the following day would remain steady or fall. Fans in shirt sleeves at Legion Field got a rude awakening when the temperature fell into the 50s by the fourth quarter of a 20-0 Phillips victory.

By late evening, readings were in the lower 40s with a north wind averaging over 20 mph. To the north, it was getting interesting. It was 18F in Nashville with heavy snow. It was 25F in Memphis with moderate snow and a north wind averaging over 30 mph. The snow was reaching Northwest Alabama.

By 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, it was down to 32F at Birmingham with snow. Four inches of snow was on the ground at Tuscumbia. An inch was on the ground in the Magic City. Roads were hazardous all over North Alabama. Dozens of accidents were being reported. By late morning, US-31 was impassable as far south as Clanton. By 10:30 a.m., the mercury had plummeted further, to 21F at the Birmingham Airport.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team boarded a charter plane at the Birmingham Airport, bound for Jacksonville and a Saturday tilt with Florida. With two losses, Alabama needed a victory to seal a major bowl bid. Tennessee was already paired with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Kentucky coach Paul Bryant was preparing his Wildcats for a Sugar Bowl date with Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Birmingham News carried rumors that the Bear might be nosing around for a job in Texas, while mentioning that Alabama was his alma mater.

In his afternoon forecast, the weatherman was calling for an overnight low between 12-15F. Good thing for Mr. Bradley that the three degree guarantee had not been invented, because with screaming cold air advection, the temperature would already be at 15 by midnight, on the way to a low of 5F. It is the coldest November reading ever in Birmingham. The second coldest November reading ever is 13F, underscoring the significance of the record. Fresh snow would fall across the northern half of the state on Saturday as the Great Appalachian Storm spun up over Ohio.

J.B. would call it a cold wave. I call it just another story from the pages of this week in weather history. Follow my weather history tweets on Twitter. I am @wxhistorian at

Remembering 1969’s Hurricane Camille

| 7:00 am August 17, 2015


Aug 17 1000z


Pete Wentzell was 10 years old. He lived in Biloxi, in a one story ranch home directly across Highway 90 from the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. His memories are of an idyllic childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, until August 17, 1969. He remembers the sugar cane that grew right outside their kitchen window. The beach was taken for granted. Summer meant beat up tennis shoes and cutoff shorts, crabbing in the warm Gulf waters at low tide with a kerosene lantern and a gig for any unsuspecting flounder he might find. He could bicycle anyplace he wanted. He had a secret hiding place in a grove of sugar cane.

Pete remembers waking up at 3 a.m. on Sunday, August 17, 1969. Something was eerily wrong in those early pre-dawn hours. He didn’t know what it was, but it terrified him. He could smell coffee. His dad was in the living room in front of the family’s Curtis Mathes console stereo listening to the radio, plotting latitude and longitude coordinates on a hurricane tracking chart. The windows had been boarded up during while Pete slept.

His father had been a military weather forecaster during World War II in Europe. The newscaster’s tone was serious as he reported that the National Hurricane Center Director Robert Simpson was saying that Camille was going to be an unprecedented storm.

Pete’s father told the youngster that the family was going to evacuate their home. Evacuate! That had never happened before. There had been other hurricanes, like 1965’s Hurricane Betsy.

Pete was told to pack clothes in a suitcase. Clothes for summer, fall, and winter. Being an avid fan of toy cars, Pete chose to use his luggage space for his prized Matchbox City. Of course, he failed inspection later, and the toys were replaced with the clothes. He was not worried. They would be back tomorrow. Everything would be okay.

Pete’s dad was like many grownups along the Mississippi coast early on that Sunday morning, August 17, 1969. They had their tracking charts, some of them magnetic, some paper. This hurricane was not turning northward toward Northwest Florida…it was still moving northwest.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and at the Weather Bureau Hurricane Warning Office in New Orleans were coming to the realization that the northward turn was not materializing. This storm was threatening areas west of the hurricane warning. The 5 a.m. CDT advisory was radically different…


Of course, Camille was drawing a bead on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A total of 143 people died on the coast, and 27 were never found.

A Critical Mission

| 2:30 pm August 16, 2015

On this date in 1969, National Hurricane Center Director Bob Simpson knew that he had a big problem. There was a hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico, some 360 miles south of Panama City, Florida. It was moving slowly toward the north northwest on an inevitable collision course with the northern Gulf Coast.

The Weather Bureau’s main computer model, the primitive statistical/dynamic NHC-67, showed that Camille was going to turn north and then northeast and impact the coast near Fort Walton Beach. But in addition to the worrisome track forecast, Simpson was concerned that Camille had grown into a monster hurricane. He just had no idea how strong it was.

The Navy was responsible for flying reconnaissance missions over the Gulf then and most of their planes were tasked to seed Hurricane Debbie in the Atlantic as part of Project Stormfury. The two remaining old planes left in Jacksonville were unable to fly into a strong hurricane. They were sending back radar triangulations of the center from the radar’s on the Connies that they were flying and dropping dropsondes well away from the center. That Saturday morning, the dropsonde released 40 miles from the center recorded a pressure of 996 millibars.

Satellite photos showed that the storm was getting better organized, but the imagery was rudimentary compared to what we have today. Forecasters had estimated that winds had increased to 115 mph. Simpson feared they were much higher.

Simpson asked the Air Weather Service in Illinois to send an Air Force C-130 into the storm that afternoon and they found the central pressure had rapidly dropped to 908 mb, very nearly the record for the western Hemisphere. This is the transcribed report from the plane, written by Dr. Simpson himself.


On the next advisory, the winds were increased to 150 mph. The mission allowed forecasters to highlight the extreme threat that Camille presented to the Gulf Coast.

Camille would go on to devastate the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the evening of August 17th, forever changing the landscape and history of the area.

On This Date in 1980: Heat Wave in Alabama

| 9:44 am July 12, 2015


Headlines on Saturday, July 12, 1980 focused on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was in its 292nd day, The GOP was putting the finishing touches on its platform prior to their national convention in Detroit. There were fears that Mt. Hood in Oregon was getting ready to erupt, a la Mount St. Helens, since quakes had been shaking the area. A hijacker in Seattle had been given $100,000 and a parachute as he seemed destined to be the next D.B. Cooper. The economy was in the tank, with talk that the extended recession was comparable to the Great Depression in many ways.

But the big news across the southern United States was the heat. Birmingham was in the middle of a thirteen day heat wave, with temperatures 90F or higher for those thirteen days. The mercury reached at least 100F on eight consecutive days. The high temperature at the Birmingham Airport topped out at 104F on that Saturday, the hottest it had been so far in the hot spell. The next day would see 106F, the hottest of the heat wave.

Air conditioning repair companies were doing a land office business. Bank managers resorted to putting blocks of ice in front of electric fans to “cool off the girls” in the drive-thrus. The local Coca-Cola bottler reported that soft drink sales were up 35 percent. The weather page in the Birmingham News wistfully noted that it was midwinter in Australia.

The toll was beginning to rise across Alabama. At least four deaths had been reported so far. Before it was over, at least 120 Alabamians lost their lives to heat related illnesses. 200,000 chickens also succumbed to the extreme heat.

The June-September 1980 Heat Wave is the first billion dollar weather-related disaster in U.S. history. Damage to agriculture and related industries was estimated at $20 billion.   The sweltering weather claimed the lives of over 10,000 Americans.

The Deadly Barneveld Tornado

| 3:08 pm June 7, 2015


On the morning of Thursday, June 7, 1984, weather maps showed a major trough of low pressure across the western United States, anchored by an upper low over the northern Rockies. A long cold front snaked from Canada down through the Upper Midwest into the Plains. An occluded low pressure system was over southern Canada. A new low pressure system had formed to the south and was moving northeast off the plains of eastern Colorado. A strong complex of thunderstorms had moved through the Upper Midwest during the early morning hours, but across the region, the atmosphere reloaded quickly. Dewpoints were in the middle and upper 60s

By afternoon, an explosive situation was in place with high instabilities and increasing wind shear as the low pressure system intensified while moving toward the Upper Midwest. Thunderstorms broke out during the afternoon from Minnesota into Iowa. Tornado reports started to come in by mid-afternoon, where a rash of at least fourteen tornadoes plagued the northwestern part of the state.

Further south, other tornadoes touched down in Missouri. One family of tornadoes started near the Missouri/Iowa border. This supercell storm produced at least four tornadoes along a 140 mile path across much of Iowa. Three tornadoes were rated as F3s and one was rated F4 out of the afternoon activity. The F4 tore through the town of Wright, Iowa, killing two. The tiny town was completely leveled, with all 25 homes destroyed and all but two buildings destroyed. In addition, one person died near Ringgold, Iowa and three more in Harrison County, Missouri.

But the deadliest tornado of the outbreak would come during the early morning hours of June 8th. The complex of storms that had produced the long-track tornadoes in Iowa weakened during the evening hours. But as it moved toward southwestern Wisconsin, it encountered a higher level of instability and shear and the storms began to strengthen. A tornado watch was issued at 11 p.m. The first tornado touched down around 12:30 a.m., remaining on the ground for several minutes. A more powerful tornado touched down near Mineral Point. A few miles to the northeast, many of the 582 residents in the town of Barneveld were awakened by a massive clap of thunder right before the power went out. The town’s tornado sirens remained silent due to the power outage even as the huge F5 tornado roared toward Barneveld.

As the tornado ripped through Barneveld, it was at least 400 yards wide. When it finished its destructive rampage, 90% of the town lay in ruins. Seventeen of eighteen businesses were destroyed, as well as the municipal building, bank, post office, fire station and three churches. A total of 93 homes were destroyed and another 64 heavily damaged.

A total of nine people lost their lives in the inky blackness that night, while 200 were injured. The town’s water tower was damaged, but was the only thing left standing amidst the tremendous devastation.

Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge. Courtesy NWS Milwaukee.

For years, residents of the tiny town spent many a sleepless night listening to every rustle of the wind for the sound of another deadly nighttime visitor.

Forecast for D-Day

| 9:00 am June 6, 2015


As German soldiers peered out from their bunkers along the French coast on the morning of June 5, 1944, they knew there was no way that the long awaited invasion by the Allies was coming that day. High winds, heavy rains and huge waves were pounding the beaches all along the English Channel that day.   June 5th had been the day that the invasion was scheduled to launch. But Allied weather forecasters had accurately predicted the terrible weather that occurred. If June 5th had been D-Day, the results would have been terrible.

So the forecast had been accurate, staving off a disaster, but Allied commanders were nervous. The landings depended on a complex set of factors, including tides and moonlight and other things. The early June window for invasion was about to close and would not reopen for two weeks. The element of surprise was a huge factor, and waiting an two additional weeks would reduce the Allies chance of success. So as you can see, weather was critical in the decision making process.

In April 1944, a joint Allied team of British and American forecasters had been established to create five day forecasts for commanders. A five day forecast was something that was unheard of at that time. Their first job was to pick a time that climatologically would be favorable for the invasion.   They chose early June. June 5th would be the day. But weather maps on June 3rd and 4th showed a depressing situation for forecasters and military leaders. Several low pressure systems were poised to move across the invasion area over the next several days.

Allied forecasters had an advantage since their forces controlled most of the North Atlantic and weather data was more plentiful to them than to the Germans. This data revealed a small window of better weather that would occur on Tuesday, June 6th as a small ridge moved over the area between two low pressure troughs. The decision was made to go then.

Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6th, 1944,, opening the long-awaited second front against the Germans and spelling the beginning of the end of World War II. The Germans were completely caught by surprise. Their military leaders believed that the Allies would wait until there six good days of weather before crossing the channel. At the end of the first day, the Allies had suffered 12,000 casualties.   Commanders had expected as many as 75,000.

Weather forecasting had played an important role in the success of the operation, but a closer look reveals that the German forecast was actually better than the Allied forecast.   The German predictions were actually closer to the actual wave heights, which were critical to the success of conveying men and materiel to the beaches on landing craft. The German forecast led them to them being relatively unprepared with their commander Irwin Rommel away from the field. The wave heights were actually above the critical threshold set by the Allies for invasion. If their forecast had been more correct, they might not have made the fortuitous decision to launch on June 6th.

It really makes you stop to consider the relationship between accuracy and value in a forecast and how it is interpreted by its end users. Dr. Harold Brooks eloquently discussed this in episode 322 of WeatherBrains on June 4, 2012. Listen to the podcast.

A final note: if the invasion had not occurred on the 6th, the next window of opportunity standpoint would have been the 17th through the 21st. A storm of historic proportions during that time could have proven disastrous for the invading forces.