Saturday, November 04, 2017

Northern Virginia Snow in the 18th and 19th Centuries

      Weather information goes back a long time in Virginia, thanks to record keeping by observers such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Snow is the most common form of natural disaster in Northern Virginia.  George Washington recorded that a gigantic snow storm on January 28, 1772 left thirty six inches of snow on the ground in Northern Virginia.  This number is the unofficial record for the area, assuming that Washington’s measurements were accurate.  Washington also reported a late season cold snap, with spits of snow and a hard wind on May 4, 1774.  During the winter of 1783-1784 the Potomac River froze over in November and the ice did not break up until March 15.  The previous year an entire regiment of the Virginia infantry marched across the frozen Rappahannock River

     The great winter events of the 19th century were theGreat Arctic Outbreak of '99” and the “Great Eastern Blizzard of '99”.  On February 11, Quantico recorded a record low of  -20°F.  The blizzard struck on Valentine's Day, dropping thirty four inches on Northern Virginia. The winter of 1898-1899 was so cold throughout the United States that ice flowed down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

A Biblical Dust Storm Comes to Washington

Dust Storm

     Few things motivate politicians like impending doom.  One of the most peculiar natural phenomena to strike the Washington area was a gigantic dust storm blowing in from the Great Plains.  Years of environmental mismanagement on the Great Plains set the stage for a natural calamity. 

In 1931, a drought hit the Great Plains. Crops died and because the ground cover keeping the soil in place was gone, the naturally windy area began whipping up dust.  Dust storms became problematic and continued to grow in intensity. In 1934 an enormous storm drove 350 tons of silt across the Great Plains as far as the East Coast.  Ships three hundred miles off shore in the Atlantic reported collecting dust on their decks. 

In April 1935, a dust storm arrived in Northern Virginia from the Great Plains. A dusty gloom spread over the region and blotted out the sun.  Meanwhile, in downtown Washington, conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett was testifying before Congress about the need for soil conservation.  Bennett explained, (pointing to the darkened skies over Washington)  “This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about.” Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act the same year.