Bicentennial Snapshot # 33: Extreme Weather Part 1

Today we will be talking about some historic weather events.

1816 and the effects of Mount Tambora eruption in Greece New York

In 1815, the largest eruption of a volcano in recorded history occurred; Mount Tambora, in Indonesia erupted spewing so much ash into the atmosphere that global temperatures dropped dramatically in the summer of 1816 causing unusual cold and food shortages. 1816 became known as the year without a summer or “eighteen hundred and froze to death.”

Painting of Mount Tambora erupting
Mount Tambora can be seen via space using satellite imagery, by NASA

The volcanic dust carried around the globe on the jet stream covered the earth like a great cosmic umbrella, dimming the Sun’s effectiveness during the whole cold year. The eastern United States, Europe, and China were hugely affected. It caused widespread crop failures, famine, and 90,000 deaths, many from starvation.

The 1815-1816 winter in the northeastern United States was milder and dryer than usual. However, just when it should have been getting warmer, at the beginning of spring, the weather turned colder and frosts were widespread. Farmers held off planting through April and May. By the first week of June, milder weather had returned and farmers rushed to get their crops sown. On June 6th a storm brought freezing temperatures and snow. Crops planted only a week earlier were lost to frost. Throughout the summer the temperatures swung back and forth; no sooner had farmers planted a crop than a frost would wipe out most of the plantings.

Illustration from Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York by Orasmus Turner 1849
Dead corn photo by G. Houston from Wikimedia Commons

Cold weather and frost returned again in July. With temperatures in the 40s during the day, people began to worry about famine. On August 6th, another round of winter weather arrived. What vegetation had survived the previous episodes were now destroyed. Once again, another warm period followed but it was too little, too late. A killing frost came in late September, two weeks earlier than usual. Then the winter started again. Many families left New England and migrated west, including to the Genesee Valley.

Our area was still pretty much a wilderness in 1816 and accounts of that summer’s impact are sketchy. MacIntosh in his history of Monroe County says that “the cold season produced a partial famine.” Wheat couldn’t be cut until September and the corn crop was a failure. Henry O’Reilly in his Sketches said about wheat: “The “cold summer” of 1816 was not injurious to our crop.”

First Settlement in Rochester 1812, engraving by Alexander Anderson, 1838
Sunset at Braddock Bay Marina by Douglas Worboys

Q: What was our mitigating factor?

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Q: What was our mitigating factor?

A: Lake Ontario of course. Then as now, the Lake impacts our weather.

The modifying effects of the lake on temperatures were particularly conducive to fruit farming and Greece had numerous orchards where farmers grew apples, peaches, and cherries.

Orchard on Payne Farm, Elmgrove Road, 1910, from the Office of the Town Historian
Ice covering the Great Lakes on March 4, 2014 (second highest coverage since record-keeping began in 1970) from NASA

Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes in surface area, but the second deepest and so is the least likely of the five to freeze over completely. The Canadian Ice Service (CIS) has been keeping statistics since the 1970s and has calculated the likelihood of the lakes freezing to the point where 90 percent of their surface is covered in ice. Lake Erie is the most likely to freeze with a chance of 69%; Huron comes next at a 22-per-cent probability, followed by Superior at 17 percent and Michigan at 11 percent. Astoundingly, the CIS estimates that Lake Ontario has a mere 1% chance of having 90% ice coverage.

The Great Lakes as seen from space by NASA, April 2000

1934 Cold Snap Hits the Orchards Businesses

Headline from Hilton Record, February 15, 1934

This brings us to the winter of 1934. Temperatures in February of that year were icy. On February 9 the thermometer dipped to minus 22 or lower; the high temp that day was minus 3. That is still the official record low for the Rochester area.

They did not keep records of ice coverage back then, but anecdotal evidence from both sides of the lake, says that Lake Ontario froze over completely that month.

Blue is the Highs in 1934 the Green Line is the Lows

Called the Big Freeze by local farmers, it destroyed most of the fruit trees. Apple trees split in half. Never again would there be so many orchards in the town of Greece.

1934, of course, was the height of the Great Depression. Men on work relief earned 25 cents an hour chopping the dead fruit trees into firewood. They also got to keep some of the wood for themselves.

Damaged fruit trees in Greece, 1934, from GHS
Firewood cut from former orchards, 1934, from GHS
Lake Ontario after March 13-14, 1993 snowstorm

Surprisingly the winter of 1933-34 was not particularly snowy. We have certainly had some memorable snowstorms in this town by the lake. This photo was taken after the March 13-14,1993 blizzard which dumped more than 24 inches of snow on Greece. It was part of the larger so-called “Storm of the Century” which pummeled states all along the east coast from the Carolinas to New England with not only huge amounts of snow but hurricane-force winds. Let’s take a closer look at the Blizzard of ’66, which occurred in the days before modern snow removal equipment such as snowblowers.

Blizzard of 1966

The green line is the Snowfall in inches. The blue line is the Precip that is not Snow

The Blizzard of 1966 was a historic storm for Greece and all of western New York. Nearly 27 inches of snow fell on the last two days of January.

This was on top of about 18 inches of snow from the week before.

Dewey Stone area Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
Snow on the roof meets snow on the ground, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
“Snowhere” to go! Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
“Snowhere” = Snow and nowhere put together as a pun meaning with the amount of snow non of the Town’s citizens could get anywhere in the town due to the amount of snow that was dropped on the city.

Winds whipped wickedly making for poor traveling conditions. Not only the schools but businesses and government offices were shut down for a week.

Town officials set up and operated storm headquarters at the Greece Memorial Hall at 2595 Ridge Rd. W. Ham Radio operators, Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), Civil Defense Radio operators, as well as town officials, which included Supervisor George Badgerow, Milton Carter the Chief of Police, Civil Defense Administrator Walter Whelehan, as well as a representative from each of the four fire companies in the town.

Fun Fact the Monroe County 9-1-1 center did not begin operating until February of 1986 and Greece did not hook up to the system till years later, and on a side note in snapshot 37 the Holiday Inn Fire could have been prevented with an automated system that dialed 9-1-1 and sent the alert to first responders that topic is for another day, now back to the Blizzard of 1666.

Without the invention of Morse Code and Ham Radio, there would have been more widespread communication problems to get information in and out of the town of Greece to other parts of the region. For those that are interested in learning about what it takes to earn a ham radio license and become a member of your local ARES group check out the ARRL.org and ARRL.org/public-service, also check out the local club in Rochester, The Rochester Hams https://rochesterham.org/

Greece Town Hall on Ridge Road, 1998, from the Office of the Town Historian
Civil Defense Seal
Current Logo Of ARES
Cars buried in snow, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers

The Greater Greece Post reported that “Snowmobiles were stationed at the Town Hall and Highway Department Garage to transport physicians on emergency calls. Two ambulances also were stationed at the Town Hall. A supply of milk and bread was kept available for delivery.” Some milk trucks and bakeries started selling their products to customers right from their delivery vans stopped at partially cleared street corners.

Toboggans were kept in readiness so that sick or injured persons could be removed over the deep snow. Standby snow-clearing crews were stationed near all firehouses to accompany fire trucks answering alarms.

Snow clogged parking lot at Nick and Erwin Dry Cleaners, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
Dewey Avenue near Barnard Fire Station, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers

“Three drug stores were alerted so that medicine could be obtained and taken where needed. Fifty prescriptions for insulin alone were delivered by town personnel and volunteers.”

Some residents used an alternative mode of transportation.

Horses on Dewey Avenue, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
This Cat is sick of the snow and wants to get farther than the edge of the driveway
Photo by Bill Sauers
This Cat is sick of the snow and wants to get farther than the edge of the driveway
Photo by Bill Sauers
Mountains of snow, Blizzard of ’66, 1966, photo by Bill Sauers
This person does not realize he is walking on top of a car
Photo by Bill Sauers

Fun Fact: The plow that is sitting in front of the DPW is from the Truck that plowed Long Pond Road during the blizzard of ’66.

On its 40th anniversary, local meteorologist Scott Hesko still ranked the Blizzard of ‘66 in the top three worst storms of all time.

Thank you for joining us today. Next week we turn our attention to ice and wind events. Especially the 1991 Ice Storm and the Wind Storm of 2017.

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