The St. Louis "Blizzard" of 30-31 January 1982

 

On January 30th and 31st 1982, a 1-in-70 year snow event occurred from the eastern Ozarks to central Illinois with the heaviest axis of snow blanketing St. Louis, Missouri. The snow began during the evening of January 30th, a Saturday, and ended during the afternoon of Sunday, January 31st.  The snow paralyzed the area with government offices, many businesses, and schools cancelling work or class for up to a week after the snow ended.  The airport, Amtrak, and bus service were shut down. As many as 4,000 motorists were stranded on highways due to the blizzard-like conditions that were created over the region.  

Many people became stranded for days, with hospital and emergency workers working 2 to 3 shifts due to their coworkers inability to make it work. According to the Post Dispatch, one subdivision, Bee Tree Estates in South St. Louis County, was cut off from civilization for five days.  Those who owned four-wheel-drive vehicles became the transportation service for the city, escorting nurses, doctors, and law enforcement to work. They also helped deliver necessary supplies to those in need and assisted ambulances, tow trucks, and other vehicles that became stuck in snow drifts. 

Residents across the area helped each other dig out from the worst snowstorm since February 20th, 1912 when 15.5 inches of snow was recorded. Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., and then County Executive Gene McNary declared snow emergencies. The Missouri National Guard was eventually brought in to help with the disaster and ease the situation in the City of St. Louis.

This snowstorm was remarkable and crippling to the St. Louis metropolitan area, although its claim to fame as being a blizzard is unfortunately untrue. For a blizzard to have occurred,  the following conditions must have prevailed for a period of 3 or more consecutive hours:

  • Sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater, and
  • Considerable falling and/or blowing snow that reduces visibility frequently to less than 1/4 mile.

Saint Louis (KSTL) Observations (Moore and Blakley, 1988)

The sustained wind at St. Louis International Airport (Lambert Field) never approached 35 miles per hour, in fact the highest wind speed recorded throughout the event was 26 mph. The 5 hour duration of thunder snow that was reported at Lambert Field was incredible, with snowfall rates of more than 2 inches per hour. The falling snow and wind did create snow drifts up to 6 feet and lower visibilities below one quarter of a mile during the storm. 

Surface Low Track Map

The storm was not well forecast by the National Weather Service,  private meteorologists, local television and radio meteorologists, nor local university meteorologists. The consensus the night before the event was for light snow to occur with a few inches of accumulation.  Looking back, who could blame them, the low pressure center never dropped below 998 mb and the concepts and ideas that we as a forecast community have knowledge of now, were not yet known or practiced. So how could such a meager low pressure system produce a band of convective snow with total accumulations exceeding 20 inches?    

The late Dr. James Moore and Pamela Blakley from St. Louis University published a paper in Monthly Weather Review (1988), "The Role of Frontogenetical Forcing and Conditional Symmetric Instability in the Midwest Snowstorm of 30-31 January 1982", where it was hypothesized that the instability (conditional symmetric instability) in proximity to the upward vertical motion branch of the ageostrophic direct thermal circulation (located just south of the axis of maximum frontogenesis) acted to focus and intensify the lift, which resulted in heavy convective snowfall. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maryville, Illinois

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Special thanks to KMOV-4 and KTVI-2 for the use of their photographs.

If you have pictures of this storm that you would like to share with the National Weather Service please email them to jim.sieveking@noaa.gov.

 

 

 

 

 

     

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