Weather Blog

A look back at the epic blizzards of 1950

A look back at the epic blizzards of 1950
Photo courtesy: Bellingham Herald.

As the talk of snow begins to percolate this weekend and early next week, it's nothing compared to what the region went through 62 years ago today.

January 13, 1950 was one of the worst winter days in Western Washington history with hurricane force winds mixing with single digit temperatures in Bellingham while our friends to the south in Seattle were buried in feet of snow. It was just one storm in a record-setting series of arctic storms in 1950 that have yet to be rivaled since.

University of Washington research meteorologist Mark Albright grew up in the Bellingham area and recently found a treasure trove of newspaper articles from the Bellingham Herald that his parents had meticulously cut out and saved during the winter onslaught. He scanned them online to make a nice gallery of history and the Herald has graciously given me permission to reprint and showcase them here.

The month certainly goes down in Northwest weather lore. Seventeen of the 35 current record low temperatures in Bellingham between January 1 and February 3 were set in 1950, including three of its all time record low temperatures and four of the top six. Snow fell in feet and snow drifts were measured in yards. Winds were on par with Category 1 hurricanes at times. But all three together and you've got one miserable winter.

Winter didn't waste any time leaving its mark on 1950, as the first of many blizzards struck on the evening of New Year's Day. Bellingham Airport reported a temperature of 4 degrees that night with a 64 mph wind gust for a wind chill of -26. The wind tipped over five planes at Bellingham Airport, causing $27,000 in damage (1950 dollars, of course).

There was 4 inches of snow on the ground by Monday morning, but hardy Bellingham residents weren't too fazed. In fact, the Herald reported in a Jan. 2 article that "School still scheduled to open Tuesday" and that skiing at Mt. Baker "was excellent with good crowd."

The cold air stuck around into Jan. 2. "The deep freeze continued in Whatcom County Tuesday (Jan 2) though the worst was apparently over." began an article on Jan. 3. JINX!

The temperature dropped to 6.6 that night and had "warmed" to 13 degrees by noon on the 3rd but the Herald article stated "it appeared that an earlier prediction of 20 degrees would not be reached". Oops. Guess we can't blame that one on the computer models. But at least the wind calmed down. So the wind chill was about... 13, not -13. And speaking of busted predictions, school ended up closed on Tuesday, but those closures were mainly blamed on broken pipes.

Outside the newspaper accounts, I have access to some unofficial highs and lows for Bellingham that suggest it actually warmed up to the mid 30s and rained a bit in the days following Jan. 3. Even enough to start to melt the snow a little.

Turns out, it was just clearing way for more snow. A LOT more snow. Another 6-10 inches of wet snow fell the night of Jan. 10, the initial punch of an incredible arctic blast that has yet to be rivaled.

Temperatures began their plunge on the 11th and 12th as a massive pool of intense arctic air in British Columbia began blasting its way into Bellingham and Western Washington through the Fraser River Valley. Highs on Jan 12 would struggle to get to 20, and then... history.

January 13, 1950 -- 62 years ago today -- would go down as the coldest overall day on record in Bellingham as hurricane force winds blasted the city and kept temperatures hovering just a couple degrees above zero through the day. Meanwhile to the south, Seattle would get its largest one day snow since the great blizzard of 1916 with a whopping 20 inches of snow at Sea-Tac Airport -- a record that stands to this day and really hasn't been seriously challenged since.

Ironically, not much snow would fall in Bellingham this day -- because really it would have been blown into drifts anyway. The Herald reports that temperatures were stuck between 2 and 4 degrees through the day with -- get this -- sustained winds of 50-59 mph with peak gusts to 75 mph! At 11:30 a.m. on the 13th, Bellingham Airport reported a temperature of 3 degrees with a sustained northeast wind of 55 mph gusting to 75 mph. (Wind chill? About -30)

The State Patrol urged everyone from Seattle to Bellingham not to use public highways for 48 hours unless extreme emergency. Sunset Heights reported a temperature of -8. And once again, planes were damaged at Bellingham Airport with even one plane's wings ripped off despite being tied down for the storms. Sumas was cut off from the outside world for a time as roads were impassable. It was so bad, school was actually canceled.

But through the snow, there was a tale of perseverance, ingenuity, and someone actually heeding a dire weather forecast. A Jan. 15 Herald article details how Harold Brunhaver's neighbor was due to deliver a baby girl any day now, so hearing of the impending storm, they fashioned a carriage using a horse-drawn farm sled to bring the woman into Bellingham before the ferocious storm arrived. They made it safely and the baby girl was born that night, but the parents remained stuck at the hospital, unable to return home for days due to impassable roads.

Ominously, the paper reported that the storm would put 1950 into the "hard winter" class and one that would "live in infamy."

Could you imagine the look on their faces if you had told them they were barely half done and it'd get even colder before Valentine's Day?

(By the way, there is a quote in there from a "planetary prognosticator of future weather" who blamed the cold on a rare planetary alignment and predicted more harsh weather in December. And he was only late by about 11 1/2 months.)

On Jan. 14, the winds finally died down but temperatures only made it to the mid teens before dropping back into single digits again that night. Some optimism on the 15th as the winds were expected to remain calm with just some snow showers -- allowing time to deal with snow drifts as high as 10-15 feet in some places.

Emergency crews finally reached Sumas which had been completely cut off from the outside world with only communication coming in from ham radios and immigration patrolmen, the Herald reported. It took the armada of fuel, bakery and milk trucks 5 hours to make the 7 mile drive into town.

The snow had let up some, but the 15th did start a four night streak of low temperatures in single digits of 9, 9, 7 and 4 -- record lows that still stand today.

Amidst that came this report on Jan. 17 that a warm front was heading their way for the 19th but "how much warmer was not predicted.". Heh, someone learned a lesson from Jan. 3.

Turns out, it was much warmer -- a winter-time heat wave, in fact. An unofficial source I have shows the high temperature reached 28 on the 19th, and a whopping 51 degrees on January 20th which data I have indicates it was a record high for the day! (Since tied in 1968). Official records from Seattle show temperatures there in the upper 40s with drenching rains -- 1.46 inches on Jan. 20. Can you imagine the slush?

It would stay relatively warm for a few days, likely giving false hope the harsh arctic chills were over. Bzzzt. In fact, it would even get colder than mid-January! More snow began falling on the 23rd and then it was another blizzard for Bellingham on the 24th as temperatures dropped back into single digits with wind gusts over 60 mph and 6-7 inches of new snow.

The snow and wind abated for the 25th -- but the clear nighttime skies allowed temperatures to drop to levels never before seen in Bellingham. The thermometer dropped to -2 on the morning of the 25th -- setting the all time record low temperature that would amazingly be matched twice more in the coming days on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. In fact, the period from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 would see low temperatures of 4, -2, 9, 0, -2 -- all still record lows today.

On Jan. 26, the Herald published an article interviewing local weather experts on what caused the extended arctic outbreaks. He pinned the cause on a rare combination of two arctic air masses dropping down from Alaska -- one coming the land route over B.C., the other -- a slightly warmer and wetter one from the Gulf of Alaska -- coming together and doing battle right over Western Washington.

But apparently not learning from previous jinxes, the weather expert states at the end "Bellingham's worst winter should soon be over with." -- if by soon, they meant another 8 days. A warm front promised for Jan. 29 instead went off shore - "didn't even wave at Bellingham" the Herald said -- and instead the front just pulled in more arctic air from B.C. and temperatures once again plunged to -2 on Jan 29, 0 on Jan. 31 and -2 again on Feb. 1.

Single digit and below-zero lows would hold until Feb. 4, when the weather finally -- FINALLY -- moderated. And Western Washington has yet to have seen anything resembling that pattern since.

So as we wonder about the spots of snow possible for next week, think back to 62 years ago and know that they would have likely traded places in an instant!

You can see all of Mark's articles here.

Special thanks to Mark Albright and the Bellingham Herald!