Imagine a sunny day in November with temperatures in the 80s.
Now imagine that the calendar said the date was 11/11/11.
You would think it was a fantastically lucky day, right?
Think again. On this particular day -- Nov. 11, 1911 -- the summer-like weather turned ugly thanks to the sudden arrival of one of the strongest cold fronts in American weather history.
Dubbed the "Great Blue Norther of 11/11/11", this epic storm system swept across the Midwest, causing widespread damage and intense confusion as record high temperatures gave way to record low temperatures within a span of hours.
The Daily Republican newspaper on Nov. 13, 1911, reported that the mercury at Cape Girardeau plummeted from 88°F to 10°F within ten hours. The high temperature the following day only reached 28°F.
"Citizens were out enjoying the balmy weather without wraps of any sort during the entire day," the newspaper article stated, then added, "The weather man, who had predicted rain, snow, sleet and blizzards, was the target for much wit and scoffing. But he was vindicated that evening, when he picked up a regular cyclone and smashed it down on the heads of the unbelieving Cape Girardeans."
During Saturday evening at around 8 PM, the story explains, the winds switched to the northwest and brought a variety of precipitation -- hail, sleet, and rain. "The zip-zipping of the wind sounded like a hurricane and many a chimney and many a fence was carried away." (It's a shame that modern-day newspaper accounts aren't nearly as colorful or descriptive.)
At Springfield, Missouri, the temperature reached a record high of 80°F just before 3 PM. By 4 PM, after the cold front had marched through, the mercury had bombed to 40°F. Overnight, the temperature dropped to 9°F, a new record low for the date. In one day, Springfield experienced a record high and a record low, a feat that has never been matched in that city's history.
This automated weather observation trace shows the changes in barometric pressure (on the left) and air temperature (right) for Nov. 11, 1911, at Springfield, Missouri. Notice how the temperature trace drops with an almost vertical line as the cold front arrived. (Image from the National Weather Service - Springfield office)
To mark the 100th anniversary of the storm, a team of students at the University of Missouri combed through newspaper archives to track the effects of the storm. They've produced an online map which documents how the storm touched every corner of Missouri.
Some of the worst death and destruction, however, was suffered in other states. Janesville, Wisconsin, was the target for an F4 tornado that killed 9 people. As the rain changed to snow thanks to the sudden drop in temperatures, the rescue operations were hampered by blizzard conditions.
In Chicago, according to a wire story in the Daily Republican, the crazy weather led to the deaths of two men from exposure -- one from the heat, and one from the cold. The story explained, "One man prostrated by heat and another frozen to death within nineteen hours is the contrast provided by the most remarkable drop in temperatures in the history of Chicago."
The wire story, published two days after the storm, tallied a death toll of 57 people, with 205 more injured. The storm left a "trail of dead and injured stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico."
Almost every form of severe weather was recorded, many at the same location: Tornadoes, high winds, large hail, flash flooding, and blizzards. The precipitous drop in temperature was the worst effect, however, as it caught people completely unaware and unprepared.
To add insult to injury, the weather in many places was tranquil, with blue skies, immediately before and after the storm. The storm itself was marked with bluish-gray clouds speeding from the north, which probably explains the moniker "Blue Norther."
We've seen plenty of bizarre and destructive weather here in Southeast Missouri in recent years, but let's hope we never see a repeat of this particular monster.