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MU professor creates 3-D computer model to explain 1911 storm

Thursday, November 10, 2011 | 8:55 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA – What started as a humid summer-like day in Columbia on Nov. 11, 1911, ended with a howling blizzard that brought a temperature drop of 54 degrees.

That day produced the greatest storm recorded in Missouri's weather history, now called the Great Blue Norther.

Winds blew wagons off bridges, and more than 50 people across the Midwest froze to death. Pigeons fell dead on the sidewalk, frogs were iced into ponds, and pigs were pummeled by hail.

“At 2 o’clock the temperature was 82. By 6 o’clock it was 28, a drop of more than 50 degrees,” the Missourian reported in its Nov. 12, 1911, edition.

Patrick Market, an MU associate professor of atmospheric science, spent a year looking at the data from century-old Missouri newspapers in an effort to discover exactly what caused this severe weather event — a basic cold front with thunderstorms, as it turned out.

Market created a 21st century 3-D computer model to replicate the event in time for Friday's 100-year anniversary.

He was helped by three students — Jennifer Power, Evan Kutta and Brian Crow. They started in September 2010 going through Missouri newspapers on microfilm at the State Historical Society of Missouri.

“We got a list of all the newspapers in print for that day,” Kutta said. “So we started going in and making copies of articles about the storm we could find.”

The list ran almost 20 pages and covered all counties in Missouri. The team found 175 newspapers that covered the event.

These newspapers provided statistical data such as times and temperatures, as well as anecdotal descriptions of what happened.

For example, the Washington Citizen described chickens that flew into trees during the warm, sunny Saturday morning and were found frozen in their perches Sunday morning, according to an article from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources news site.

"The Chillicothe Constitution said the sudden change in temperature almost killed several farmers who went into their fields 'wearing only light wraps,'” according to the article.

The Graphic newspaper in Shelby County reported that frozen pools with the heads of frogs protruding from the surface were found, according to the article.

After compiling the news accounts, the next step for the team was plotting the data on a map in Google Earth, Crow said.

The students also looked at how the storm progressed through Missouri. According to the newspaper archives, the storm entered Missouri about noon in Kansas City and left after Poplar Bluff was hit around 10 p.m.

In Columbia, the balmy morning turned blustery in mid-afternoon. A temperature drop of  54 degrees produced a severe winter blizzard by 5 p.m.

"When the average businessman went to work at noon yesterday, he wore his summer clothes and then felt uncomfortably warm," the Missourian reported. "When he went back to work after supper, he wore his heaviest winter suit, his high shoes and his overcoat."

Market said the team also used data from 20th Century Reanalysis, an online database created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to create the 3-D model of the atmosphere.

Based on the data, Market said he could more clearly explain what happened 100 years ago.

“The Blue Norther is just a cold front,” he said.

He described a cold front as the leading edge of a cool mass of air that is replacing a warm air mass. On a weather forecast map, a cold front is usually represented by a long blue line with blue triangles, Market said.

What made the storm even more powerful in 1911 was a line of thunderstorms that occurred immediately ahead of the cold front. When a thunderstorm comes with rain and snow ahead of a cold front, it makes the temperature drop more magnificent, he said.

Market said that during the research process, he often had to make scientific inferences based on the descriptions.

For example, according to the CAFNER article, the Tipton Times reported: “The rain came down in torrents and was followed by the most severe hailstorm witnessed here for 40 years. Almost every pane of glass in the west side of residences and business buildings in the city was broken.”

From that description, Market inferred that the storm likely came from the west in Tipton, which is in Moniteau County.

The newspapers also documented the storm's casualties — farmers, hunters and railroad personnel among them.

According to the article, the Miller County Autogram in Tuscumbia reported that a farmer was found frozen to death at his front gate. The newspaper also reported that "freezing to death in the middle of November is very unusual in Missouri."

The main reason for the high number of casualties — one newspaper reported 57 dead and 205 injured – was lack of communication, Market said.

At the beginning of the 20th century, commercial radio was uncommon. Most people had no idea the storm was coming and did not prepare for it, he said.

Today's scientists have the technology to forecast and inform people before such a  disaster hits, he said.

Jayson Gosselin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, agreed.

“We would probably see some signs of a cold front this strong three to five days in advance," he said. "As we get closer to the event, we can refine predictions on the timing and how fast the temperature drop is."

Market said his computer model does not predict future weather patterns, but it does provide a better understanding of past events.

Randy Mertens, media relations coordinator for CAFNER, said the model can be an important tool.

“The more information we have about this very unique event, the better chance meteorologists will have to predict future ones," he said. "More lives will be saved."

Market said it’s wonderful to be able to create a 3-D model based on grass-roots data.

He compared the process to surveying a house. In the old days, he said, meteorologists only knew about the events on a ground level, or the floor.

“Nowadays we know everything from floor to ceiling and wall to wall," he said. "And with balloons and radar (to collect data), there’s no stone left unturned.”


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Comments

Cho Ling Ngai November 11, 2011 | 10:34 a.m.

Interesting. Never knew Missouri had a huge storm called the Great Blue Norther! It'd be really nice if the computer model can help predict future weather patterns too. Great interviews and sourcing by the way!

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