National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

130th Anniversary of Green Bay's Largest Snowstorm

March 1st and 2nd of this year will mark the 130th anniversary of Green Bay's largest snowstorm. On March 1, 1888, Green Bay recorded 24.0 inches of snow. This is the largest calendar day snowfall on record for the city. On the 2nd, an additional five inches of snow fell, bringing the two day storm total to 29.0 inches, making it the largest snowstorm on record. The second largest snowstorm on record at Green Bay is 23.1 inches set on January 8-9, 1889, while the modern day record is 17.8 inches set on March 22-23, 2011.

The Setup:

On February 26, arctic air was firmly entrenched across the region as high temperatures were only in the teens as far south as central and southern Illinois. On February 28, low pressure was developing across the Rockies. On the 29th, a tightening temperature gradient across the central United States helped fuel the storm as the system intensified and moved onto the Plains. Some high temperatures on the 29th include: 19 at Hancock, Michigan; 34 degrees at Manitowoc, Wisconsin; 52 at Springfield, Illinois and 60 at Greenville, Illinois. On the morning of March 1, temperatures ranged from the single digits above and below zero across portions of Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska to the 40s and 50s across portions of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. As the day progressed, warmer air continued to push north as the low pressure system approached Wisconsin. Temperatures at 3 pm on March 1 ranged from 4 below zero at Bismarck, North Dakota to 66 at St. Louis, Missouri. A sharp temperature gradient was noted along the entire front. Some temperatures at that hour included: 14 degrees at Yankton, South Dakota; 30 degrees at Omaha, Nebraska and 62 at Leavenworth, Kansas. The high temperature at Harrisburg, Illinois (just north of Paducah, Kentucky) was 68 degrees.

Ahead of the system, thunder snow was reported across South Dakota with temperatures in the teens and 20s, while eight locations in Iowa reported thunderstorms. It is surmised that thunderstorms moved into Wisconsin later on March 1. During the evening of March 1, the surface low was approaching Chicago, Illinois. This is a prime storm track for heavy snow across northeast Wisconsin. A large temperature gradient was noted at 10 pm across the upper Midwest as temperatures warmed to 54 at Davenport, Iowa and 50 at Chicago. At the same time, it was only 32 at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 22 at Green Bay and 12 at Marquette, Michigan.  

 

7 am March 1, 1888 3 pm March 1, 1888
10 pm March 1, 1888 7 am March 2, 1888

 

Snowfall Amounts and The Impacts:

Newspaper Account - Snowfall  Photograph - Green Bay 3/13/1888
Source: Green Bay Advocate. Click on image to enlarge. Source: Green Bay Entertainer. Click on image to enlarge.

 

During this period, there were very few weather observation stations that reported during the entire event, or the snowfall amounts on both days. There was considerable doubt whether the 29 inch snowfall was accurate at Green Bay!  However, the newspaper clipping from the Green Bay Advocate (above) quoted the Green Bay weather observer who stated that "27 inches" of snow had fallen during the past 24 hours (referring to the 24 hour period prior to the newspaper interview). This confirmed the record setting snowstorm! Besides the 29 inch amount at Green Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan reported two feet of snow while around 18 inches of snow was reported in northern lower Michigan. The Sturgeon Bay newspaper reported over a foot of snow fell at Sturgeon Bay. Just to the west of Green Bay in Embarrass (Waupaca County), the observer reported 1.15 inches of liquid equivalent (melted snow) with highs in the lower to middle 20s. Surmising a snow to water liquid equivalent ratio of 15:1 to 25:1, that would put an estimated snowfall between 17 to 28 inches in the city. Newspaper accounts indicated that heavy snow fell across northern Wisconsin, including Waupaca County. An Oshkosh Northwestern headline stated the storm was a "paralyzer."  The newspaper went on to state:

"Last night's storm had done more to paralyze business throughout the northwest than any one of the blizzards experienced during the entire winter.  Telegraphic communications with outside cities almost entirely cut off".  

The storm exhibited a sharp gradient in the snowfall amounts with a wintry mix across the southern third of Wisconsin into central portions of lower Michigan. The Green Bay Advocate indicated wires were down south of Green Bay due to icing while the Oshkosh Northwestern also stated the southern portion of the state experienced "a super abundance of sleet."  In Michigan, only three inches of snow fell at Mio, while only 150 miles to the north there was around two feet of snow. 
 

The Discrepancies:

What made this storm even more interesting were the discrepancies found in the old Weather Bureau records from the 1890s to as late as the 1920s regarding the March 1888 snowfall total and the seasonal snowfall total for the winter of 1887-88. In some years, the snowfall for March 1, 1888, was (mistakenly) entered as 2.4 inches (instead of 24 inches) while the seasonal total was around 125 inches. The numbers changed back and forth over the years. In 2005, a local study was performed by the NWS Green Bay office to verify the high seasonal totals from 1886 to 1891. Daily snowfall for all five winter seasons in question was analyzed. In over 90 percent of the daily snowfall events, there was corresponding snowfall data to support each event. After the analysis was completed, the NWS Green Bay office established Green Bay's snowiest winter at 147.7 inches during the winter of 1887-1888. It should be noted that Embarrass in northeast Waupaca County reported 126.9 inches of snow during that winter, but this does not include the snow event from March 1-2, 1888.  At the time of the 2005 study, the top three snowiest winters were noted in the late 1880s (1887-88, 1889-90, 1886-87). It wasn't until the winter of 2007-2008 (and subsequently, the winters of 2008-2009 and 2010-2011) that the snowfall of 1886-1887 was surpassed.

Rank Year Snowfall
 1 1887-1888 147.7"
 2 1889-1890 103.6"
 3 2010-2011 92.6"
 4 2008-2009 87.7"
 5 2007-2008 87.4"
 6 1886-1887 82.7"