National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Armistice Day Storm:  Aftermath

Jeff Boyne, NWS La Crosse, WI

Main Page Weather Pattern Sea Level Pressure Winds Snowfall Marine
Media Accounts Personal Accounts Photos Aftermath Computer Simulation Acknowledgements


Prior to the Armistice Day Storm of 1940:

Weather observations, forecasts and warnings were much different in 1940 and so were the ways people received information. Until 1934 the Weather Bureau offices operated 12-15 hours a day with two basic observations taken at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The observations were transmitted via telegraph. There were no satellite images and few upper air observations. In the Midwest the Chicago District issued weather forecasts for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Weather Bureau forecasts, which were issued mid morning and mid evening, were brief and general. Distribution methods ranged from reports in newspapers, on cards displayed in the lobbies of public buildings, radio broadcasts, or by telegraph. Cold wave warnings which were prepared for citrus fruit growers, cranberry, tobacco interests, and iron ore shippers were based upon forecasters recognizing a particular weather pattern and its potential effect. Weather Bureau offices in cities like Davenport and Dubuque provided weather observations which were sent to the district offices via teletype.

A wealth of weather observational records which had been accumulated since the 1800’s were basically underutilized until computers improved the ability to record and retrieve data. During the modernization of 1934 card punching of weather data began and phone calls to Weather Bureau offices increased to about 100 phone requests a day for climate information (Whitnah, 1961). In 1938 a “breakfast forecast” was introduced, and predictions were revised four times a day (4 a.m. & 4 p.m., 10 a.m. & 10 p.m.). For rural communities weather information was limited, but certainly available, since it was common for telephone operators and carriers on rural free delivery mail routes to distribute this information (Whitnah, 1961). In 1940 long range forecasting was introduced. This longer forecast, which covered 5 days and which was issued twice a week, was based upon upper air pressure data and correlated with past weather patterns (Whitnah, 1961).

After the Armistice Day Storm of 1940:

In the days and weeks after the storm, the U.S. Weather Bureau responded to criticism that it failed to predict the huge blizzard. Officials said they knew a storm was coming, but were wrong about its strength and scope.  Perhaps the most embarrassing revelation was that no one was watching the storm's explosive development in the pre-dawn hours of November 11 (the low pressure deepened 1-2 millibars per hour over a 24 hour time period). A retired government forecaster says the Midwest headquarters in Chicago was not staffed overnight. The uproar led to several changes:

  1. It strengthened support to keep weather offices open 24 hours a day (the Chicago office went to round-the-clock operation).
  2. Prior to the storm, forecasting for the entire region had been directed by the Chicago office, but in the wake of this storm, responsibilities were distributed to regional centers (Twin Cities branch was upgraded so it could issue forecasts) to provide more timely and accurate predictions.

"The Armistice Day Storm remains noteworthy to society because it was a seminal event that continues to impact humans. Anything that endures as part of a culture from one generation to another is considered a seminal event; and the societal impacts of such an event can change lives and change history. The consequences of societal impact alter the ways in which people live, work, play, relate to one another, organize to meet their needs and generally cope as members of society.  Forecasters must assess the potential for societal impacts when they strive to understand the atmospheric environment, timing of an event, and the social environment in their warning areas. Any event with the potential for folk-lore will produce societal impact.

The longer we accumulate weather records the more likely we are to find extreme weather events. An assessment of societal impacts has the potential to help individuals and communities understand and anticipate possible social consequences of an event in regards to human populations. It is becoming standard practice to weave social science into weather and climate research (Gruntfest & Lazrus, 2009). Over time public perceptions are changed partly due to massive growth in media coverage, but also because real-time media with gripping images bring storm and disasters into our living rooms.

Generations have based their understanding of extreme winter weather against the storm that struck on Armistice Day 1940. Seventy years later the Armistice Day Blizzard remains the second most requested bit of information from the Minnesota State Climatologist office (Boulay, 2009). In Iowa this catastrophic event changed agricultural growing practices as apple growers switched from tending orchards to corn and soybean production. Evidence of the Armistice Day Blizzard is recorded in newspaper clippings, photos, museum collections, and stories of this event have been captured in cookbooks, journal articles, and passed on through family oral traditions. This storm produced an impact on society due to the death and destruction left in its wake. If one measures the impact of an event by the diversity of the information that remains this storm was indeed memorable."  (Credits: Theresa Simmons, National Weather Service; Sarah Schultz, Student Volunteer)