Date of this Version
2019 American Meteorological Society
The story of the winter of 1880-1881 in the central United States has been retold in historical fiction, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, as well as in local histories and folklore. What story does the meteorological data tell, and how does it measure up when compared to the fiction and folklore? What were the contributing factors to the severity of the Long Winter, and has it been or could it be repeated? Examining historical and meteorological data, reconstructions, and reanalysis, including the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index, the Long Winter emerges as one of the most severe since European-descended settlers arrived to the central United States and began documenting weather. Contributing factors to its severity include an extremely negative North Atlantic Oscillation pattern, a mild to moderate El Niño, and a background climate state that was much colder than the twentieth-century average. The winter began early and was particularly cold and snowy throughout its duration, with a sudden spring melt that caused subsequent record-setting flooding. Historical accounts of the winter, including The Long Winter, prove to be largely accurate in describing its severity, as well as its impacts on transportation, fuel availability, food supplies, and human and livestock health. Being just one of the most severe winters on record, there are others in the modern historical record that do compare in severity, providing opportunity for comparing and contrasting the impacts of similarly severe winters.