The Long Winter of 1880-81 | weatherology°
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By: Meteorologist Michael Karow
Updated: Feb 22nd 2021

The Long Winter of 1880-81

The month of February 2021 will long be remembered across the central United States as an unusually frigid one, especially in the southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley where record cold and snow was experienced that many locations had not seen in decades. This February Arctic Outbreak, though, stood in contrast to a January which was well above average across much of the northern Plains and slightly above average in the central and southern Plains. There have been much more severe winters in the past, though, that overshadow this year's February cold snap. The “Long Winter” of 1880-81 was for many sites across the Plains and Midwest near the top, if not the record coldest and snowiest winter on record.

The famous series of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder dealt with the winter of 1880-81 in the sixth novel, entitled, “The Long Winter.” In it, Wilder recounts how an early blizzard in mid-October of 1880 was followed by a relentless succession of blizzards which eventually suspended all rail travel to eastern Dakota Territory cutting off the residents from much needed supplies of food and fuel until May of 1881.

A 2020 study headed by Barbara Mayes Boustead of the University of Nebraska—Lincoln sought to examine the data which would support Wilder's account of an unusually severe winter. Using an index to rank the severity of a winter season by the combined effects of snow and cold, the study found that for a wide swath from the northern and central Plains eastward to the Great Lakes, the winter of 1880-81 ranked at least in the top 5 severest winters on record, with some locations like Omaha, NE; Des Moines, IA; and Dodge City, KS experiencing their worst winter, and Minneapolis-St. Paul ranking a close second.

One of the main reasons why the winter of 1880-81 was so severe across a large swath of the northern and central U.S. has to deal with a weakening of west to east winds encircling the polar region. This circulation is called the polar vortex.  As this circulation decreases in intensity, surges of Arctic air more easily make their way further south into North America and Europe. This same weakening of the polar vortex, albeit for a much shorter duration, allowed for the record-breaking cold snap across the central U.S. this February.

snow blockade 1881 rail Minnesota Historical
Snow blockade, Southern Minnesota Division, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, March 29, 1881 - [Minnesota Historical Society]
AWSSI 1880 1881 Boustead
Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index for the winter of 1880-81; purple dots mean one of the severest winters, and purple diamonds the most severe on record for that location - [Boustead et al., 2020]
Arctic Oscillation NOAA NCDC polar vortex
A negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (weaker polar vortex) in the top image allows Arctic air to work further south as in the winter of 1880-81 - [NCDC/NOAA]