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Climate Strange: 5 Monster March Snowstorms

Snow plows in Manhattan during the blizzard of 1993.
Bill Turnbull
NY Daily News via Getty Images
Snow plows in Manhattan during the blizzard of 1993.

For much of the nation, March has come in with a leonine roar.

Are these late-season snow shows examples of climate change? "No," says weather historian Jim Fleming of Colby College. "The polar vortex is a natural and variable stratospheric event. One of its anomalies hit Russia and Central Europe in winters past. This year it is our turn."

Uncomfortably numbed by seemingly endless snow and ice and near-zero temps, we can take some solace in knowing that earlier Americans dealt with wicked winter weather as well.

Here from history are five stultifying storms that occurred after March 1:

1) The Great Blizzard of 1888 paralyzed New York — city and state — and the entire East Coast, according to the Atlanta Constitution of Tuesday, March 13 of that year. Nature's assault was an admix of rain and snow and gales and extreme cold. It came in on a Sunday afternoon and intensified overnight. A train from Baltimore to Washington "was obliged to creep its way through a network of telegraph poles and wire and stop frequently to clear the track of fallen trees and scattered timber." In the nation's capital, streets flooded, then froze. Streetcars were blocked by fallen telegraph wires. Electric lights failed; gaslights faltered. The Western Union telegraph company in Washington sustained its worst damage to date. In New York, fewer than 15 shares were sold on the stock exchange – the lowest volume recorded up to then. City hotels were crawling with folks from the suburbs. Elevated trains were halted for the first time. People abandoned their wagons. At the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets, a woman froze to death. By storm's end, The New York Times reported, more than 400 people had died.

2) The 1894 Widespread Blizzard – according to a harrowing New York Times story — occurred in mid-March. The vast and vicious snow show swept across the Western United States. In Portland, Ore., the Post Office predicted it would take days to distribute the backed-up mail. Trains between North Platte, Neb., and Cheyenne, Wyo., were stymied by six feet of snow. In Brush, Colo., a reporter noted that "the most severe storm of the winter has prevailed here for 36 hours." And West Superior, Wis., lost all of its telephone, fire warning and police patrol communications when wires were blown down by severe winds.

3) The 1930 Freak Blizzard dumped more than 19 inches of snow on Chicago. As the two-day storm abated, the Chicago Tribune of March 26, 1930, reported: "in the blinding snow which obscured the city like a cloud of steam, four men died: two under automobiles, one of a fall on glassy pavement, and one of the exertion of struggling through drifts." Tens of thousands of workers were hired to clear the streets and rails.

4) The Spring Snowstorm of 1968 surprised Memphis, Tenn., and the mid-South on March 21. There was rain in the forecast. The high was expected to be 45, the low 34. Then came eerie evening clouds, plummeting temperatures and snow upon snow upon snow. According to Fox News in Memphis, it snowed for 21 straight hours – eventually totaling more than 17 inches.

5) The 1993 Storm of the Century. The mid-March superstorm, says meteo-historian Jim Fleming, "threw everything it had at the eastern third of the USA, from blizzards to tornadoes. From Alabama to New England, there were hurricane winds, record cold and over 40 inches of snow on each of seven states from a single weather system. All of the interstate highways and even secondary roads were shut down or inaccessible, and for the first time ever, every major airport on the east coast was forced to close." For more than a week, millions of homes were without power. Total damages: $3 billion. Total deaths: 270.

The Protojournalist: A sandbox for reportorial innovation. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.