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November 13, 1972 | The Omaha Crop-Killer Snowstorm

Heavy snow turned a good harvest into a bad one
Posted at 4:07 PM, Nov 15, 2023

The 1972 harvest was shaping up to be one of the better years for Nebraska and Iowa. Good weather in the spring and summer had led to a bountiful harvest, but wet and cool weather through the fall delayed the harvest. By mid-November, only 85% of the soybean crop and 40% of the corn crop had been harvested in Nebraska. The outlook looked good, projections by the end of the harvest were looking for 530.4 million bushels of corn, but over 300 million bushels were not harvested yet. Then came Nov. 13, 1972.

An unusually early heavy snow event blanketed Nebraska and Iowa, coating the still unharvested corn and soybeans in snow. Within a few hours, what was looking to be a good harvest was destroyed. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, we look at the 1972 snowstorm that damaged the crop across the Corn Belt.

THE WEATHER SET-UP

1972 was generally an average year for rainfall, although the winter of 1972 was somewhat dry. A wet April, July and September brought those rainfall totals to above average. The beneficial rain and generally warm temperatures meant the crops were growing, and the harvest began in a cooler and wet fall.

Accumulation Graph 1972.PNG
The accumulation graph for precipitation in Omaha during 1972. The red line is the average precipitation seen over the year, while the green shaded area is the 1972 precipitation. By November 13, it was an above average year.

On Nov. 12, a low-pressure system was beginning to develop over eastern Colorado. This is what is known as a "Colorado Low", and typically these are the storm systems that produce the most snow for Nebraska and Iowa. On Nov. 13, this storm system crossed along the Kansas/Oklahoma border, and the heavy snow band fell across Nebraska into Iowa. By Nov. 14, the low-pressure system quickly moved into the eastern U.S. and the snow ended.

Surface Map Nov 13.PNG
The weather map for November 13, 1972. The storm system was located along the Kansas/Oklahoma border with a broad area of precipitation (represented by the shaded parts of the map) across the Midwest.

Although it began as rain early in the morning in Omaha, by the afternoon it quickly transitioned to snow before ending by the evening hours.

THE SNOWFALL

DMA Historic Snowfall Maps.png
Snowfall map for eastern Nebraska and western Iowa from November 13, 1972.

The snowstorm of Nov. 13, 1972, wound up being one of the largest snowstorms in Nebraska or Iowa history in November. Omaha picked up just shy of 8", with Bennington recording closer to 10", while Sarpy County was around 7". Most of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa saw over 6" of snow, the exceptions being northeast Nebraska and northwest Missouri.

From David City to Audubon there was a higher band of 8+", the highest snowfall total was David City at one foot! Fremont was around 11", Blair at 9", and Harlan at 8".

Since the snow was not expected during the day on Nov. 13, many businesses and schools still had classes in Omaha. As people were driving home, they got caught in the snow and took hours to get home. One person who lived through the storm recounted their drive home from work.

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A story detailed in the Omaha World-Herald that day recounted one woman's grueling commute which took a 15-minute drive to a 6 hour adventure as she drove from work to her apartment.

  • She left the Douglas County Courthouse at 3 p.m. when it had already begun snowing, she was going home to her apartment complex around 96th and Q Street. Normally, this was roughly a 15-minute drive if traffic was light, and 20 minutes if it was rush hour.
  • It took her two and a half hours to drive to 24th and L streets arriving at 5:30, normally this takes eight minutes.
  • She was redirected to Q Street where she sat at the intersection for 45 minutes while stalled cars were being moved.
  • Then she crept down Q Street where she made it to 84th Street at around 7:15 p.m., finally making it to 96th and Q at 8:15 p.m.
  • She walked the rest of the way home, arriving around 9 p.m.
  • Google Maps claims that if one walked from the courthouse to her home, it would've taken three and a half hours.

The following day, many businesses and schools were closed as clean-up efforts began. Since the snow was somewhat unexpected, not many people moved their cars from the roads, making it difficult for snowplows to maneuver. Across the rest of Nebraska and Iowa, it was a similar story with people being stuck at home or in businesses for several days as clean-up efforts began.
AFTERMATH

Cold temperatures in the days after the storm allowed the snow to stick around for several days. By Thanksgiving, Omaha recorded 1" of snow depth, officially making 1972 a White Thanksgiving. Eighteen of the past 70 years have had snow on the ground Thanksgiving, 1972 was one of those years.

The storm slowly passed from memory as the holidays rolled around, but farmers were hit the hardest by the snowstorm. A report a month after the snowstorm brought the true extent of the harvest of 1972 home, it was devastating. Millions of dollars in crop damage and much of what was not harvested was lost. It impacted the corn crop much more than soybeans, as 40% of the corn was harvested by Nov. 13.

TWWH Info.png
The numbers provided by an investigation showing the extent of the crop loss in Nebraska in 1972, much of these impacts came directly from the 1972 snowstorm.

The harvest of 1972 brought some changes to the way fields were harvested, and additional protection measures were implemented to prevent crops from being damaged in the wake of the 1972 snowstorm.