National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

By: William R Deedler, Weather Historian, National Weather Service Detroit/Pontiac Mi  4/00

Initially, I had intended to write about Detroit's biggest snowstorm ever recorded (24.5") but while researching the storm (which occurred way back on April 6th, 1886), I was struck by the uncanny similarities between that storm and Detroit's second biggest snowstorm (19.3") which occurred nearly a century later on December 1st, 1974. Besides the obvious similar snowfall amount between the two systems, other significant parallels could also be drawn. In addition,  while I was obviously not around to observe the first huge storm, I did have the opportunity to witness the second first-hand, in my earliest days with the National Weather Service.

Unfortunately, weather maps for the1886 storm are unavailable, unlike the 1974 storm. With the aid of surface observations and weather journals however, at least an estimate of the surface and upper air data can be made. Perusing through the carefully scrolled weather journals of the late 1800's, one can't help but be amazed and "taken back" by the simplistic, yet stylish way of which they were written. In addition to hourly weather observations and climatic statistics, each day contains usually a short synopsis of the weather experienced for that day. It is the weather logs from late on April 5th - April 7th, 1886 that really commands ones attention and awe.

APRIL 1886 -

By early April 1886, some residents of Southeast Lower Michigan had most likely started on spring outdoor activities. High temperatures frequently pushed well into the 50s from mid March on; the last hint of snow fell nearly two weeks before on the 23rd. No doubt the growing season's new green vegetation was well underway.

The weather days proceeding the massive and incredible snowstorm hinted little of what was yet to come; however, there were some subtle signs of trouble brewing. The first was a fresh, brisk northeast wind that blew continuously for nearly three days prior to 6th (generally, an easterly wind along with a falling barometer in this region, foretells of foul weather approaching the area). On the 4th into the 5th, observations including temperatures, wind flow and pressure changes indicated an unseasonably cold high pressure system pushing slowly into Southern Canada and the Northern Great Lakes. This persistent and strengthening northeast wind along with an extended period of steady, then slowly falling barometric pressure, during the three-day period (3rd, 4th and 5th), indicates this high was a fairly strong, resilient and a blocking type of high pressure. A second and more foreboding sign of what was to come was indeed a rapidly falling barometric pressure later on the 5th, which foretold of the major storm approaching Southeast Lower Michigan. The surface observations late on the 5th indicated a low pressure and storm center approaching the Southern Great Lakes from the south or southwest (most likely from Illinois, Indiana or Ohio) as the cold high to the north slowly retreated.

The afternoon high on the 5th reached only 38 degrees (about 15 degrees below normal) and then held nearly steady into the evening. Increasing high cirrostratus clouds mingled with the sunset but then, quickly lowered to altostratus and nimbostratus as midnight approached. Light snow began to fly just after midnight and remained light until becoming heavy during the predawn hours. Note the following taken from the actual Detroit Weather Log dated April 6th, 1886:

"Snow began at 12:30 AM and fell light until about 4:30 AM when it began to fall heavy and a tremendous fall of snow continued all day, ending at 9:00 PM. The fall at 7:00 AM was 4.6" and at 3:00 PM was 17.1" and at 11:00 PM, 2.4" making the total of 24.1 inches melted from the snow gauge. The rain gauge was soon snowed full and was practically useless. Total fall of the snow on the level was 24.5 inches. The snow was badly drifted by the heavy gale. The drifts in some places were 12 feet high and the snow in the street was from 10" to 40" inches deep. A heavy north gale set in at 1:45 AM and raged in fury all day reaching 40 miles north at 2:15 PM and continued all the remainder of the day. Its force with the snow was appalling. It blew the snow in fine particles against the face, cutting like a knife."

The synopsis continues with a description of numerous street cars that were abandoned, strewn about and laying in all sorts of positions. As one might expect with the snow falling in April, the snow contained a high water content (2.43") and, therefore, it was very heavy and packed down well. Obviously, wading through the snow to get around on foot was extremely difficult - so much so that it became necessary to use crowbars and ice picks just to clean a path on the street. Maneuvering through, or just moving the snow, was such a monumental chore that even several ton railroad cars were "held prisoner in their houses". On the train tracks, freight cars were immobilized and abandoned across all of Southeast Lower Michigan. Temperatures held in the upper 20s to around 30 through the entire snowfall, with over two feet of snow reported on the ground. The strong northeast to north gale sculptured towering drifts of snow up to 12 feet high across the landscape .The howling wind averaged over 30 mph during the 24 hour period. The lowest barometric pressure reading noted was 29.60 inches at 11:00 AM on the 6th. This reading isn't too terribly deep or severe (the lowest pressure ever observed in Detroit was 28.34 inches during the late January blizzard of 1978), but the pressure was taken only five times daily (7:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 3:00 PM, 7:00 PM and 11:00 PM), so it likely fell lower As the center of the low pressure drifted further north into the Great Lakes on the 7th, milder air from the south was drawn into Southeast Lower Michigan. The sky cleared as the wind shifted to the south and the temperature rose to 40 degrees, in spite of the very heavy snow cover. In the days following the storm, temperatures managed to push up well into the 50s and even reached the mid 70s by mid month, after all, this was April, right?

This storm stands as Detroit's biggest and severest snowstorm and is well summarized by the following quote in the journal and actually would still stand to this day. . .

"The storm was unprecedented in fierceness, snowfall and blockades in the history of the service and the oldest inhabitants can recall nothing to equal it".


It would be nearly a century later before a very similar storm, a sort of "meteorological clone" would arrive and again leave the region snowbound with the second highest snowfall (19.3" as compared to 24.5") ever recorded in metropolitan Detroit in a single storm. While there were several similarities between the two storms, one obvious difference was their timing in the snow season. Also, it is interesting to note here, that neither storm occurred during what is officially called "winter." While the 1974 storm occurred in late fall at the forefront of the 1974-75 winter season, the April 1886 storm showed up on the doorstep of spring.

Besides the similar heavy snowfall between the storms, there is the likeness of the surface observations taken before and during each storm. As its predecessor, the 1974 storm was proceeded by a few days of persistent northeast winds along with an initially rising barometric pressure, then after, an extended period of steady pressure readings before giving way, slowly at first, to falling pressure. Also, like the 1886 storm, temperatures crept up into the mid to upper 30s on both the 29th and 30th (though these highs were not anywhere near as below normal as in the April 1886 storm). On the 30th, the northeast wind averaged around 19 mph with peak gusts close to 30 mph. The persistent strong northeast wind with just a slow climb in daytime temperature was a result of a large stationary polar ridge axis of high pressure that extended in a horseshoe shape (an Omega High) from the Great Plains, north into the Dakotas, then east across Lake Superior into Quebec, Canada and finally south along the East Coast. The high's strength and position also recalls that of the1886's high pressure mentioned previously.

The development and track of this super snowstorm was complicated and quite a hassle for forecasters that Thanksgiving weekend. The primitive forecast models (when compared to the more sophisticated and better resolution of today's models) had quite a time in predicting the track of the storm and its intensity. Even up to the day of the storm, the forecast models continued to weaken the center of the storm as it moved into Kentucky and Ohio, while intensifying a new storm along the East coast. On Saturday, November 30th, a strong closed-off 500 MB Low advanced into the Mid-Mississippi Valley, while at the same time, at the surface, an inverted trough of low pressure extended from a low over the northern Gulf of Mexico, north northwest to a second low over Missouri. The consensus of the forecast models was to bring the 500 MB and surface low generally east, into the Ohio Valley and weakening both. In the meantime, the Gulf Low was forecast to track north northeast up the East Coast and intensify; thus, becoming the main low and storm center of the entire system. This was the accepted forecast scenario with the data available at the time and could hardly be argued otherwise. Actually, this predicted path and subsequent weakening of the Ohio Valley low as the East Coast storm intensifies or "bombs-out" is what generally happens. The models failed in forecasting the weakening trend of the Ohio Valley system. The 500 MB Low and the surface low not only did not weaken, they actually intensified and became vertically stacked in the atmosphere. Generally, when this happens the system tends to hold on to its intensity longer and slow down in movement, both of which proved detrimental to the computer forecast.

Light snow moved into extreme Southeast Lower Michigan during the predawn hours between 5:00 AM and 7:00 AM. Even at the 5:00 AM forecast issuance, it looked as if just one to three inches of snow would blanket extreme Southeast Lower Michigan for this event. However, by sunrise, already up to three inches of snow covered the region and the snow was not getting any lighter. A stiff northeaster' also accompanied this storm, though not as severely as the 1886 storm, averaging 20 to 30 mph with gusts above 30 mph. By sunrise, an area of snow had settled over extreme Southeast Lower Michigan. On radar during the forenoon hours, bands of heavier snow appeared over Northern Ohio and Lake Erie, trekking west-northwest toward Michigan. By now, the forecasters knew the forecast was in trouble and updated the forecast to read "six or more" inches of snow.

The 500 MB Low and associated energy to support the surface system drifted east over Kentucky, while the surface low that was over Missouri drifted east right along with it. A huge conveyor belt of moisture had set up in the atmosphere extending from the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic, east into the Ohio Valley and Southern Great Lakes. Not only had the storm tapped the usual Gulf moisture; now Atlantic moisture started to be drawn into the mix. After analyzing surface data from the 1886 storm, it is strongly suspected that this too was the case at that time. Huge moisture plumes from both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fed the1974 storm and likely, the1886 storm, with nearly duplicate surface observations before and during the event.

Bands of snow (much of it moderate to heavy) continued to be produced across the Eastern Great Lake States on the "conveyor-belt" through the afternoon, with the heaviest snow falling across extreme Southern Ontario, extreme Southeast Lower Michigan and extreme Northwest Ohio. By mid afternoon, already between six and ten inches of snow was on ground across much of extreme Southeast Lower Michigan, with generally eight to ten inches in the metro Detroit area. Visibilities were frequently near zero and moderate northeast winds blew the heavy, wet snow into at least three to five foot drifts. Another notable item observed during the storm was frequency of large snow flakes. Generally in the majority of snowstorms there may be a period or two of heavy snow with large flakes and a quick accumulation of snow. During this storm however, there were several periods, or waves, of heavy snow with continuous large flakes and very low visibilities, migrating in from the east over the region.

The surface low drifted north northeast from Kentucky into West Virginia by Sunday evening on the 1st and gradually matured and occluded. It still remained however, the dominant low (which was not forecasted by the forecast models), while the second low on east coast moved north at the triple point (at the point where the occluded, warm and cold front of the system met) and never really developed. As darkness fell, generally up to a foot and a half of snow smothered the metro Detroit area, with six to twelve inches elsewhere in extreme Southeast Lower Michigan. During the evening the snowfall became lighter and by midnight, 18.4" was officially observed at Detroit Metro Airport. Another nine tenths of an inch fell early on the 2nd, for a grand total of 19.3" (19.2" of it falling in 24 hours) with Flint reporting a snowstorm total of 8.1". As the low drifted northward, milder air filtered into the region and the snow became mixed with, and then changed to drizzle.

Coincidently, the next day (Monday, December 2nd, 1974), the temperature also warmed to 40 degrees in the afternoon, but the wind remained more northerly rather that shifting to the south (as on April 7th, 1886). This was due to the fact that the center of the low tracked further east of Southeast Lower Michigan into Pennsylvania, rather than into the suspected Great Lakes area in 1886.