09 January 2008

The Great Northwestern Gale

On this date in 1880 ...

It seems appropriate today to do a post about extreme weather. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and though the winter is always wet, this season has been unusually gray and rainy. A puddle that stresses the definition of puddle and probably deserves to be a pond sits right outside my front door, and occasionally seeps in a bit. You only have to go up about 500 feet for all the water to turn into snow, and there's plenty of that at elevation.

But if I was alive 128 years ago today, today's nasty winter weather would be but a pleasant fantasy, because on this date in 1880, one of the greatest winter storms in American history hit the Pacific Northwest.

Unfortunately, the region was lacking modern measurement devices to know, exactly, how fast the wind was, and how low the barometer sank. One estimate puts it at 998 mb, an extreme storm event, but we have to go on words instead of numbers to understand the ferocity of the storm. Most of the words surviving to this day are from letters to the Daily Oregonian, a newspaper in Astoria, OR. Here are a few excerpts:

"We have just experienced one of the severest gales; nothing like it has occurred since the settlement of the bay." Astoria had been officially settled 70 years earlier, in 1810.

"The tide rose seven feet higher than was ever known; nearly all the old wharves are taken away." I don't care if it's accurate or not - the phrase "seven feet higher than was ever known" is poetic in a way that letters to the editor seldom approach.

In Portland, far from the center of the storm's fury, we do get some scientific measurement of the gale. A barometer read 28.556 inches, the second lowest reading in the history of the state, and even more impressively, the fastest rate of decline in Oregon history. The barometer fell by a over quarter of an inch in 2 hours, a massive drop in so short a time. Wind speed rose from 4 to 39 miles per hour in a span of fifteen minutes. And remember, this was not where the storm first hit, in Astoria, but 72 miles inland.

So, if you're like me, and you complained today about the winter weather in the Northwest, you can be somewhat comforted that it has been a lot worse than this, and we made it through.

On Friday, Jedlik and the Dynamo

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