Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version

Summer 7-28-2014


Boustead, Barbara E., 2014: The Hard Winter of 1880-1881: Climatological context and communication via a Laura Ingalls Wilder narrative. Ph.D. dissertation, School of Natural Resource, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 196 pp.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Natural Resource Sciences (Climate Assessment and Impacts), Under the Supervision of Professors Kenneth G. Hubbard and Martha D. Shulski. Lincoln, Nebraska: July, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Barbara E. Boustead


The Hard Winter of 1880-1881 was featured in the Laura Ingalls Wilder historical fiction account, The Long Winter, as well as in several town histories across the region. Both meteorological records and historical accounts indicate that the winter was particularly long, snowy, and cold. The question of how “hard” a winter is for a given location depends on the climatological context, which relies on an objective characterization of winter severity. The Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index (AWSSI) allows comparison of the winter of 1880-1881 among sites across the region, as well as in the context of the period of record, to quantify its severity. Additionally, investigating the impacts of both the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in the central United States provides context for the influence of both a strongly negative NAO and an El Niño event during the winter of 1880-1881. With an understanding of the climatological factors influencing the Hard Winter, along with the context for its severity, a more thorough analysis then was conducted to quantify and describe its severity.

The connection of the winter of 1880-1881 to a popular book written by an author who is a cultural icon provides a natural vehicle with which to communicate weather and climate concepts to multiple non-technical audiences. The communication of complex weather and climate concepts is a well-documented challenge. One method to bridge between science concepts and public understanding is to relate those concepts to familiar subjects and stories, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. A narrative constructed around the books, particularly The Long Winter, provides a means of audience engagement and interest in weather- and climate-related topics, which was at least partially quantified by surveying audiences of the narrative. Overall, the scientific background, combined with a familiar narrative voice, provides a means to transmit weather and climate understanding to a wide audience.

Advisors: Kenneth G. Hubbard and Martha D. Shulski