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The event of the season - 2 days of hell!

Go Kart Mozart

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These are excerpts from Alexis Caswell's weather journal at Brown University Providence RI. 

Three classic cold outbreaks from 1855 to 1857 with his comments. 

FEB 1855 _ After several rather cold days, severe cold set in during the 6th, when it was -3F at sunrise, -7F at mid-day and -14F in the evening; by morning of the 7th Caswell measured -15F and commented it was the coldest reading in the 24 years he had kept up the observations. The mercury only recovered to 10F at mid-day, started to fall a bit in the evening but then snow began and became heavy, Caswell measured 1.25" liquid and stated that 12 to 14 inches of snow had fallen by 9th, with moderate northeast winds drifting it considerably. It stayed rather cold for a few more days then a thaw with heavy rain followed (2.80" fell 14th-15th, temperatures recovered to the low 40s).

JAN 1856 _ He describes a "violent" two-day snowstorm on the 6th with 18-20 inches of snow, very strong northeast winds, and mid-day temperatures only 11F and 19F. Temperatures struggled up to 30F by the 8th with a light 2" snowfall followed by a sharp temperature drop to -8F the morning of the 9th, and a mid-day reading of only 2F. This cold wave moderated slightly on the 10th and severe cold did not return until the 25th when readings were between 5 and 7 F with strong northwest winds. The first half of February was generally very cold, with a remarkably fast drop from 40s to single digits on the 12th, and -3F on the morning of 13th. Then another severe cold wave struck in March, perhaps the coldest March weather recorded in the region. Mid-day readings on 9th and 10th were only 11F and 13F with a morning low of -2F on 10th. Caswell commented that the moderately strong west to northwest winds at the start of this cold wave made it excessively cold. Only 2" of snow fell before it turned cold but given the winter in general there was probably at least some snow cover before that fell. There were enough variations in temperature to lead me to speculate that it was probably a frozen snow cover of about 8-10 inches at that point. Warming later in the month was very modest and the 31st had a temperature range of 19 to 31 degrees, Caswell said this was "cold but not unpleasant" so I guess he was resigned to it by then.

JAN 1857 _ There had been severe cold on Dec 18th (range -5 to 2 F) and the entire month of January 1857 was extremely cold with a mean around 15F. There were no 40 degree temperatures until the 27th. A snowfall of 10" on the 3rd probably remained untouched during two weeks of frigid weather, despite generally dry conditions. It became exceptionally cold on the 18th with -9F in the morning, slowly moderating during the day but then a ferocious snowstorm began, lasting through the 19th with strong northeast to north winds and according to Caswell, it was an exceptional and violent snowstorm, 2.50" of liquid gave 18" of snow although it was much drifted by extreme winds (he used a five point wind speed scale and rarely used the 5, gives that for sunrise 19th).

Temperatures during the blizzard never exceeded 12F. Snow fell to mid-day after which he says the air was "full of snow" indicating severe blowing snow. However once the blizzard passed, a slight moderation followed with a high of 36F on the 21st. Light snow fell at times on 21st and early 22nd and then the temperature began to fall rapidly. It was -6F by 10 p.m. 22nd and stood at -14F at sunrise 23rd with a "force 4 (out of 5) NW wind" making it "exceptionally severe to be outside." The mid-day reading was only -5F making it about equal to Feb 7, 1855 for sustained cold. The next morning (23rd, a Saturday in 1857) it was back down to -14 F. (an aside, this event produced record cold in Toronto also, the lowest reading was -22F and a high of -13 F on the 22nd). There was slight but steady moderation thereafter, and in February 1857 temperatures swang to the other extreme, with severe flooding as a result. Starting with a heavy fall of wet snow and rain on Jan 31, two weeks of incredible oscillations followed (my wording not his), with a heavy rainfall of 1.25" and temperatures near 50F on the 7th-8th with dense fog not surprisingly. It fell to -3F on the morning of the 12th, accompanied by a barometer reading of 30.87" which Caswell says was the highest he had ever seen to that point. It then turned very mild with more heavy rainfalls.  The highs on 16th to 18th were at least 55, 61, 57 (his mid-day readings, he does not mention any specific highs as he sometimes did during extreme spells). I think I recall reading about severe flooding on the Connecticut River during this event although it could have been due to the the earlier 7th-8th rainfall. No doubt ice jams were prolific given the depth of earlier snow and severity of cold.


Anyway, this seems to be the time to set your time machine, 1854 to 1857 would be epic. Before those three winters, the winter of 1853-54 was mostly more "normal" but there was a heavy snowstorm on Dec 30, 1853 leaving a cover of 16-18 inches. The summer of 1854 had severe heat waves and forest fires must have erupted somewhere in upstate NY or maybe closer, as his comments include thick smoke at times. The highest temperatures Caswell ever witnessed were in the high 90s, he never saw a 100+ reading.

Caswell (who lived from 1799 to 1877 and was a professor at Brown U with interests in astronomy as well as meteorology) kept this journal from 1831 to 1860, and became associated with the Smithsonian Institute, part of a movement to create an American weather bureau which was realized at some point during his later years, so perhaps we could say he was the original weather weenie (unless that was Benjamin Franklin). His comments sound remarkably modern in places despite the change in the language from the mid-19th century to today. He was certainly fortunate to be observing through many very extreme years (and several very active solar cycles with the dark skies of his era, producing many vivid descriptions of aurorae), in particular these three years, but also some other remarkable events that are not seen nowadays, such as a mixed rain and snow nor'easter in the first week of October, 1841. He had one brush with a hurricane (October 7, 1849) but did not use the term hurricane and I have to wonder if he knew it was a hurricane at the time (I feel certain he would have known of the existence of hurricanes). The eye of it seemed to pass near his location during the 7th. He recorded 2.75" of rain and noted heavy rain with thunder around 07-08h 7th.

If you want to see this journal, I would suggest you go to the Alexis Caswell page on wikipedia and look for the link under Biography. I tried block-copying the link but as I live in Canada I think it takes me to a part of google that you cannot access, so I would have to think your link will be different but takes you to the same place, where there are links to an e-book showing the full journal. It's worth seeing. He didn't comment very often in the first decade and became more and more active with the comments. His reports include three daily temperature and barometer reports, cloud amounts, and wind data using that five point scale I mentioned. His precip reports are mostly daily and sometimes two or three day events just summed up without breaking them down by days.  



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