The Halloween Blizzard of 1991

Storm Total Snowfall Maps
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The snowstorm that hit parts of the area starting around Halloween (October 31 - November 3) in 1991 was an impressive storm in many respects, and it is still remembered by many people across the Northland. In fact, this storm was set up, in part, by the weather patterns that caused the "Perfect Storm" that struck the East Coast of the United States, and was famously depicted in Sebastian Junger's book. Moreover, the "Perfect Storm" was beginning to wind down in the Northeast on Halloween, around the same time that Minnesota was starting to see heavy snow creeping in. To have two exceptional storms impacting the continental United States at the same time is quite rare.

Fast Facts

  • At the time, the 36.9" of snow that fell at Duluth set the state record for storm total snowfall. That was surpassed in 1994.
  • Snow began in Duluth at about 1 PM on October 31st, and did not end until 1 PM on November 3rd, meaning that snow fell continuously on the city for about 72 hours.
  • Moderate to heavy snow fell in Duluth from about 11 AM on November 1st to about 2 AM on November 2nd - about 15 hours.
  • Blowing snow was reported in Duluth for 33 consecutive hours, starting at 2 PM on November 1st. Winds regularly gusted to between 30 and 40 MPH.

Meteorological Summary

The "Halloween Blizzard" was made possible by a strong Arctic cold front that surged south through the central United States several days prior. On October 28, 1991, temperatures in advance of the cold front were actually quite pleasant as high temperatures reached into the 70s from the Mid Mississippi River Valley south into North Texas, and into the 80s across much of central and southern Texas. Meanwhile, high temperatures did not crack 20 degrees across most of Montana and Wyoming.

The contrast between the two air masses was stark, and by the morning of October 29th, the cold front was already about halfway through Texas. At 6 AM CST, the temperature in Amarillo, TX had plummeted to 22 degrees with a stiff northerly breeze. Abilene, TX was reporting a temperature of 40, while Dallas came in at 64 - a 24 degree difference over about 180 miles. Meanwhile, morning lows were much more frigid to the north - in the single digits across Montana and Wyoming, and in the teens (with snow) in the Dakotas.

A broad upper level trough was in place over the western US at this time, with one particular shortwave (a disturbance, or small area of low pressure aloft) lifting northeast through the Dakotas, and another digging to the southeast into the Intermountain West. By October 30th, the cold front had reached the Texas shoreline with the Gulf of Mexico, and stalled in that location. As the shortwave aloft rounded the base of the broad trough and approached the southern Plains, it aided the development of an area of surface low pressure along the sharp temperature gradient near the Texas Gulf Coast. The development of low pressure systems along coastal fronts in this fashion is relatively common in the cool season along the Texas Gulf Coast and along the Atlantic Seaboard near the Gulf Stream current.

From October 30th into the 31st, this low pressure system slowly became better organized over Texas, before it ejected north over the Mississippi River Valley. This trajectory of a low pressure track (almost due north from the western Gulf) is climatologically favorable to produce very heavy snowfall in the winter months because it allows copius amounts of moisture to surge north where they can interact with colder air. Cooler readings lingered at the very end of October across the Upper Midwest, and a re-inforcing shot of Arctic air was just beginning to push southeast through the western Canadian Provinces.

On November 1st, the surface low pressure moved north from western Illinois into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the minimum pressure fell about 24 millibars in 24 hours, indicative of rapid deepening and strengthening of the cyclone. This was when the heavier snow set in across the Northland, and winds became quite gusty - producing some blizzard conditions with visibilities at or below 1/4 mile at times. Snowfall rates occasionally peaked in the 1 to 2 inches per hour range.

The low pressure eventually became occluded, weakened, and then continued to dissipate as it pushed east across northern Ontario in subsequent days. When the storm had exited, it had taken quite a toll on the area. Almost every place received at least a foot of snow, with lower totals to the west of the International Falls, Grand Rapids, and Brainerd areas as they were further away from the low, and also east of the Ashland and Hayward areas where warmer air kept snow from accumulating as much. Snow drifts were as high as 6 to 10 feet in some areas, and a few spots saw businesses and schools closed for several days.

Weather Maps

7 AM EST Surface Weather Maps - courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project
October 28 October 29 October 30 October 31 November 1 November 2 November 3

7 AM EST 500 millibar maps - courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project
October 28 October 29 October 30 October 31 November 1 November 2 November 3

Visible Satellite image loop from CIMSS (UW-Madison)

Snow Totals From The Area

Below are snowfall totals from the "Halloween Blizzard" from the NWS Duluth county warning area.

Location County Total Snowfall
Duluth, MN St. Louis 36.9"
Two Harbors Lake 36.0"
Brule, WI Douglas 32.0"
1E Brimson, MN St. Louis 32.0"
7ENE Bruno, MN Pine 32.0"
Superior, WI Douglas 31.5"
10 NW Gunflint Lake, MN Cook 30.0"
Eveleth, MN St. Louis 30.0"
Danbury, WI Burnett 28.0"
Solon Springs, WI Douglas 28.0"
Gordon, WI Douglas 25.9"
Grantsburg, WI Burnett 25.0"
3NNE Lutsen, MN Cook 25.0"
Drummond, WI Bayfield 24.0"
Hinckley, MN Pine 24.0"
4NW Wright, MN Carlton 24.0"
3S Tower, MN St. Louis 23.0"
Cotton, MN St. Louis 22.1"
6N Bayfield, WI Bayfield 20.0"
Floodwood, MN St. Louis 20.0"
1SSE Moose Lake, MN Carlton 19.2"
Cloquet, MN Carlton 18.6"
International Falls, MN Koochiching 16.8"
Madeline Island, WI Ashland 16.5"
Grand Marais, MN Cook 16.0"
Hayward, WI Sawyer 16.0"
Spooner, WI Washburn 14.5"
Sandy Lake Dam, MN Aitkin 14.0"
Remer, MN Cass 14.0"
5 NE Marcell, MN Itasca 11.9"
Brainerd, MN Crow Wing 11.0"
Grand Rapids, MN Itasca 10.4"
Winnibigoshish Dam, MN Cass 10.0"
Pine River, MN Cass 9.0"
Gull Lake Dam, MN Cass 8.6"
4NE Mellen, WI Ashland 7.6"
Cass Lake, MN Cass 7.1"
Walker, MN Cass 7.0"
Grand Portage, MN Cook 7.0"
Gurney, WI Iron 6.4"
Federal Dam, MN Cass 5.6"
Winter, WI Sawyer 0.2"
Prentice, WI Price Trace

Information will continue to be added in the near future.


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