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November 11, 1940 | The Armistice Day Blizzard

One of the most fierce blizzards in Midwest history
Posted at 8:00 AM, Nov 09, 2023

On Nov. 11, 1918, a jubilant Omaha crowd of 100,000 gathered around the Douglas County Courthouse in the evening and watched as a "body" went up in flames. The "body" being burned at the funeral pyre was no body, but the representation of the ex-Kaiser of Germany Wilhelm II. Cries of "The Kaiser has gone to hell, long may he remain there!" echoed across the crowd. The "funeral" of Wilhelm II began at 8 p.m. on 10th and Farnam, heading up the street to the resting place at the courthouse.

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A view of the World War I Victory Parade looking from 18th and Farnam Streets.

The celebrations in Omaha were reflected across the country and the world, for Nov. 11, 1918, was a special day. At 11 a.m. on that day, the armistice went into effect as the guns fell silent across the western front. Ever since — Nov. 11 has been a day of both celebration and remembrance in the United States and Europe. In 1938, Nov. 11 would become an official holiday, Armistice Day. The day contained ceremonies such as the visitation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One year later, Armistice Day took on a whole other meaning as the world plunged into another war. After World War II, Armistice Day would be turned into what we know today as, Veterans Day, to honor those who served in the later conflicts post-World War I.

Although parades and celebrations were held on Armistice Day 1940, the irony was not lost on anyone as the world burned in the Second World War. Omaha citizens read in the papers as Nazi Germany took over Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and most astonishingly, France between September 1939 and June 1940. Newspaper accounts told of the relentless bombing campaign that the United Kingdom underwent, the Blitz, as it was being called. In November 1940, attention was focused on the Mediterranean as Mussolini's Italy attacked British holdings in North Africa. On Oct. 29, a new European front opened up when the Italian forces invaded the Kingdom of Greece. In Asia, Japan was still engaged in a brutal war with China. The United States was neutral up to this point, but many Americans knew it was only a matter of time before their young boys would be sent off once more.

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Large bolded headlines became all too common across the world as World War II continued. This headline was from the Omaha World-Herald on October 28, when Italian forces invaded neutral Greece. The invasion of Greece by Italy occurred just two weeks before the blizzard of 1940.

On Nov. 11, daily headlines in the papers of war ceased for a few days, and a new story much closer to home broke. As Europe, Asia, and Africa burned in the fires of war, the Midwest experienced another harrowing disaster of the natural kind. It was a blizzard, in fact, it would be one of the blizzards remembered for generations like the Schoolchildren's Blizzard of 1888. Known as the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940, it brought the Midwest to a standstill as heavy snow and ice, brutal cold, and screaming winds ripped through the Midwest. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, we travel back to that dark time in history to look at the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.

THE WEATHER SET-UP

In the days leading up to Nov. 11, the fall of 1940 had been fairly warm with no real cold intrusions. The high temperature in Omaha in October never fell below 60 degrees, with no freeze during the whole month. During the first few days of November, this pattern continued, the highs remained in the 40s to 70s before the 11th.

By Nov. 7, things began to change as a large storm system developed over the Pacific, west of the Washington Coast. The storm system battered the northwest with high winds upwards of 40 mph. During these winds, the newly opened Tacoma Narrows Bridge began to sway. While bridges naturally sway some (if you stand on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge during strong winds, you can feel the bridge sway a little), the Tacoma Narrows Bridge began to drastically sway from side to side almost like waves on the Ocean before it finally gave way and collapsed. Luckily everybody managed to get off the bridge, but tragically a frightened dog in a car did not survive. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse is one of the most famous bridge collapses in U.S. history, and a foretaste of what this storm system was to bring to the rest of the U.S.

As the storm system moved across the Rocky Mountains on Nov. 8 and 9, the first major cold front of the season was sliding southward from Canada. Ahead of the front temperatures remained in the 50s and 60s, but behind the front temperatures fell into the teens and single digits. On Nov. 9, the cold front was positioned from Oregon to Minnesota. Along this temperature contrast is usually where low-pressure systems can form, and that is what happened when the prior storm system emerged east of Colorado.

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The weather map from November 9. An arctic cold front was working its way across the Midwest. Out west, the same storm system which brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was moving into eastern Colorado.

Low-pressure systems often strengthen once they leave the Rockies due to complex meteorological factors too much to explain here, but this process of cyclogenesis (one of those fancy words to describe a strengthening low-pressure system) along the tight temperature gradient allowed this storm to strengthen about as rapidly as any storm system can. On Nov. 10, this low-pressure system dropped pressure at rapid rates over Oklahoma and Texas.

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The weather map from November 10. The high-pressure system in the Atlantic would act as a shield preventing the storm system over Oklahoma to move northeast, but instead it moved almost due north into Iowa.

The final piece of the deadly puzzle was a strong high-pressure system over the Atlantic Ocean. This high pressure acted as a blocking system now allowing the Oklahoma storm to move northeast. Thus, the low-pressure system took a sharp left hook northward over western Missouri into Iowa then Wisconsin.

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The official weather map produced by the Weather Bureau at 7:30am, which shows the strong low-pressure system north of Des Moines. Omaha was on the cold side of the storm system, with a temperature recorded at 15 degrees.

The central pressure of the storm deepened rapidly. At 7 p.m. on Nov. 10, the central pressure of the system was at 994 millibars (mb), which is standard for a typical low-pressure system. By 7 a.m. on Nov. 11, the pressure deepened to 983 mb; by 12 p.m. it was now at 973 mb; and by 7 p.m. it had dropped to an ear-popping 967 mb. To put this in perspective, that sort of low pressure is commonly seen in Category 2 hurricanes! The term for this strong lowering pressure is bombogenesis, which is defined as a pressure drop of 24 mb within 24 hours. Nebraska residents might remember this term from March 2019, as a similar scenario occurred to the low-pressure system which was in part responsible for a significant flooding across the state.

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The track of the low-pressure system through the days. Each dot represents its location at a given time. The time is given in the four numbers next to the dot, times are in central time and military time (ex. 1830 means 6:30pm). Below the time is the pressure measured in the storm system in millibars. For additional context: 967 millibars is equivilent to 28.55 inches of mercury or 14 psi (pound for square inch of mercury). For some areas, this low of pressure has only happened a handful of times before or since.
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A later rendition of the weather map from November 11, 1940. The black lines are known as "isobars", which connect areas of equal pressure. As a general rule, the closer together the isobars are the stronger the low-pressure system is, as well as the stronger the winds. These isobars being so close together are indictive of an incredibly strong system with high winds.

All of these factors came together on Nov. 11, 1940, to produce a truly fatal combination as a relatively unprepared Midwest was about to deal with one of the strongest blizzards in Midwest memory.

THE STORM IN NEBRASKA AND OMAHA

Fortunately, Nebraska missed out on much of the deadly factors of this storm system due to its timing. The sharp cold front had come through early in the evening on Nov. 10, meaning everyone was prepared for the snow when it began to fall. Snowfall amounts in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa were on the lower end for big blizzards, but enough to make an impact. In Omaha, Eppley Airfield recorded around 2" of snow, while other reports in the metro saw as much as 4-5". The higher snow totals were in northeast Nebraska into northern Iowa, where totals over 6" were common, and even a 10" report in McCool Junction south of York.

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Snowfall map for Eastern Nebraska and western Iowa on November 11, 1940. While generally low, the blizzard still caused major problems across the area.

Throughout the day on Nov. 11, Omaha was subjected to brutal cold and high wind. The temperature at 8 a.m. was 15 degrees, and those temperatures stayed in the teens much of the day. As winds were blowing 40-50 mph through the day, wind chill values were below zero much of the day. As the winds raged, whiteout conditions were reported across much of eastern Nebraska, snarling traffic and halting trains. The strong winds also downed telephone lines, leaving power out in several areas across Omaha and Lincoln.

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Image taken from around the time of the Blizzard of 1940 in Elmwood Park in Omaha. However, it is not confirmed if this is the blizzard of 1940.

One significant effect the storm had in Nebraska was on trees. As the temperatures were relatively warm, no freeze stopped the growing season. A few days before the blizzard, over 1" of rain fell on top of a long drought Nebraska had seen. The moisture-starved trees absorbed the water, only to have it all turned to ice when the cold front came through on Nov. 10. Known as "frost crack", many trees were shattered by the growing ice. This put a major dent in Nebraska's apple industry and even altered the way agriculture was done in the state as many farmers switched from apple-growing to soybean production. The effects were much worse in Iowa, described below.

THE BLIZZARD ACROSS THE MIDWEST

8 a.m., Nov. 11. Temperatures across much of the eastern Midwest were in the 50s, a rarity for that time of year. Excited about the day, many duck hunters took to the rivers and waterways to begin hunting. Since it was a holiday, many had the day off work or school, so spent their day on the waters. Many marveled at the number of ducks that were flying south that day, a duck hunter's dream. As many ventured out in light jackets and short sleeves, no one stopped to ponder why there were so many ducks fleeing south. The ducks knew what the hunters did not, that the weather was about to change in an instant.

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Temperatures across the Midwest at 7am on November 11. Many in the eastern Midwest were lulled into a false sense of security as morning temperatures were in the 50s, but the sharp temperature gradient was beginning to move into Iowa.

Weather forecasting in 1940 was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. The Weather Bureau, the precursor to the National Weather Service, took daily observations and wrote general forecasts. In 1940 there were no satellites, no radar, little upper-air observations, and no computer forecasting models. Thus, Weather Bureau officials failed to recognize the strengthening aspect of the storm and thus gave little to no warning to those across the Midwest who were about to deal with the storm.

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The official weather forecast for Minneapolis given in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that morning. Forecasters were unaware of the true nature of the storm system, thus the forecast was generally vague.

Similar to how schoolchildren were caught from a sunny, comfortable day to a ferocious blizzard in minutes back in 1888, the duck hunters and other people experienced the same thing in 1940. Across Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois once the cold front blew through the temperatures dropped quickly. In some spots, the temperature dropped ten degrees in a matter of minutes, and almost 30 degrees within a couple of hours. Once the temperatures fell, so too did the snow, at times it was heavy. As the snow fell, the wind blew at times over 60 mph, enough to do tree damage in some spots. In western Michigan, wind gusts topped 80 mph.

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An example of near-white-out conditions. In the blizzard of 2007, visibility was less than even this, with objects a few feet in front of you disappearing into the white abyss.

The next few hours for duck hunters were out of a horror movie in its nightmare conditions. Many on boats were buffeted by waves several feet high, driven by the unrelenting wind. As the snow fell, visibility fell to around 30 feet in many spots, meaning several got lost trying to find their way to shore. Some got lucky and managed to land on an island or the shoreline, but could not brave the whiteout conditions to find more adequate shelter. Some turned their boats upside down to shelter them from the storm, others clung onto trees or brush, while a few even hid in hay bales. When the storm left, rescue efforts began as people rushed through the deep snow to find people. Some made it, others did not. Many hunters suffered frostbite, a few even needing limbs amputated. While exact figures of the death toll of the duck hunters will probably never be known, it is probable that it was in the dozens, even as high as 70 people across the Midwest.

The story of the duck hunters was the most tragic element of the blizzard, as the fact it was a holiday where people had work/school off sealed many fates. However, it was also a blessing for those not caught outdoors. Since many were off work or school, residents in the Midwest rode out the storm in their homes.

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Snow drifts as high as 6' were piled in front of this theater in northeast Minnesota.

As the storm system continued northeast, the second great tragedy occurred on the Great Lakes. Large ships were caught in the 70+ mph winds that threw the ships across the choppy waters. Three major ships, the SS Anna C. Minch, the SS Novadac, and the SS William B. Davock were all sunk in the storm. In the Anna B. Minch, the boat broke in two and sank, taking the lives of all 24 people on board. The Novadac hugged the eastern shoreline of Michigan due to the southeast winds in the morning, but when the winds suddenly shifted to the northwest at 70 mph it threw the ship into the sand bars offshore. All but two on the Novadac survived as rescuers made it on their own boats. The William B. Dovack suffered the same fate as the Anna S. Minch when it sank during the storm, killing all 32 people.

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The SS William B. Dovack before it sank during the Blizzard of 1940.

In total, 66 people died on the lakes that day, combined with the dozens across the Midwest putting the death toll for the Armistice Day Blizzard at over 140. This blizzard has been cemented in Midwest history as one of the worst, comparable with the Blizzard of 1888 or later years.

AFTERMATH

As the storm system moved away, it left a lot of damage in its wake. Across Minnesota, snow up to 2" buried many locations, and snow drifts were as high as 6" in many locations. It temporarily halted transportation services. Armistice Day celebrations were canceled across the board and moved to later dates. The temperatures after the blizzard remained one of the coldest November cold snaps seen in Omaha, as highs barely made it into the 20s for several days. However, by Nov. 17 it was back into the 50s and 60s, and any snow left over melted pretty quickly.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the war that so many dreaded would come to the United States when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Many of the same men and boys who were stuck out hunting went off to the jungles of the Pacific, the deserts of North Africa, or the rolling hills of western Europe in the final years of World War II. Despite the brutal conditions of wartime and the terrain, some came home with their worst day not in the Second World War, but from the blizzard of 1940.

In the days following the blizzard, public outcry at the weather forecasts was aimed at the Weather Bureau. For starters, forecasts for the entire Midwest were done exclusively out of Chicago, which was only staffed for 15-18 hours a day. Since there was no one in the office in the morning, they did not record the rapidly deepening storm system to give adequate warnings. The Weather Bureau listened to the outcry and changed its ways, another Weather Bureau location was opened in Minneapolis to narrow down the geographic region for forecasting, and offices were staffed 24/7. These changes began the effects that would lead to the modern weather service with its over 100 offices staffed 24/7 to provide up-to-the-minute weather information.

Another long-term impact was on the agricultural industry in the Midwest. Before 1940, Nebraska and particularly Iowa were big in the apple industry, as orchards spanned both states. Then the blizzard came which destroyed many apple trees across both states. Due to increasing food demands because of the war, and the fact that it would take years to re-grow apple trees, many farmers adapted to grow different crops. This was the beginning of the major corn and soybean booms seen in both states. It was in the frost-bitten fields of the blizzard of 1940 that the "Corn Belt" became what it is today.

SOURCES/FURTHER READING

A full report on the meteorology of the blizzard of 1940 can be read here from the Monthly Weather Review.

For more information on the Duck Hunters, an article in Ducks Unlimited focuses on the experience of the hunters, including several harrowing accounts.

For more general information on the storm and its impacts, the National Weather Service offices in Davenport, Iowaand La Crosse, Wis. has information.