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Blizzard ’77: Buries cars, deathly cold surprises millions

Image: U.S. Department of Transportation

Image: U.S. Department of Transportation


Brett Soderholm
Meteorologist

Friday, January 27, 2017, 8:54 AM - If you didn’t experience it firsthand, you will never fully comprehend just how bad winter weather can get.

Forty years ago this week, residents of the Niagara Region in southern Ontario and western New York (including the city of Buffalo) found themselves in the midst of one of the most infamous blizzards in either region’s history.

A blizzard so intense that people literally froze to death in their vehicles because they couldn’t make it to safety.

A blizzard so powerful that it created nine-metre snow drifts, completely burying cars and making snowmobiles the only possible means of transport for days, if not weeks.

A blizzard so unlike anything that anyone had ever experienced in the region that it was dubbed the blizzard of the century, or even the millennium.

This was the Blizzard of ’77.


" ... up until the blizzard began on January 28th, 1977, it had snowed every day since Christmas of 1976, leading to a whopping 150 cm of snow falling prior to the blizzard in January alone ..." -- National Weather Service


Setting the Stage

What makes the Blizzard of ’77 so unique is the fact that this storm did not by itself produce the copious amounts of snow that led to the aforementioned nine metre snow drifts famously photographed after the event.

Indeed, the Blizzard of ’77 would likely not have happened at all if it were not for the anomalously cold conditions toward the last quarter of 1976; the average air temperature during the months of November and December, for example, was 6˚C colder than the climatological normal, breaking records that went back to the 1880s.

Because of these cold temperatures, Lake Erie froze over completely by December 14th, 1976 – the earliest it had ever done so on record (For perspective, as of January 25th, 2017, Lake Erie was only 3 per cent covered in ice).

Now normally if a Great Lake freezes over, this reduces the likelihood of experiencing a significant snowfall downwind, as lake-effect snow no longer becomes a concern; moisture can no longer be readily picked up by the winds, hindering the development of lake effect snow squalls. But in this particular case, the Blizzard of ’77 largely happened because the lake froze over so early.

Meteorological reports from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Buffalo, New York, indicate that up until the blizzard began on January 28th, 1977, it had snowed every day since Christmas of 1976, leading to a whopping 150 cm of snow falling prior to the blizzard in January alone.   


"... Even for a region familiar with sudden lake-effect snow squalls, this caught many people off-guard ..."


This exceptionally light, fluffy snow was able to pile-up unimpeded on the completely-frozen, completely-exposed 25,744 km2 surface of Lake Erie during this period of time. Owing to persistent frigid temperatures, this snow never underwent melting/re-freezing processes, and thus remained almost entirely unconsolidated atop the lake.

Image: National Weather Service/NOAA

Image: National Weather Service/NOAA

Without necessarily knowing it at the time, the stage for the Blizzard of ’77 was now set: Nearly three feet of fluffy snow rested precariously atop a flat, barren landscape. Can you even imagine what would happen if the winds suddenly picked it all up at once and blew it all around?

Not many could.

The Event Itself

The Blizzard of ’77 effectively began when a strong Arctic front associated with a passing low pressure system swept over Lake Erie the morning of January 28th, 1977.   

The passing of this front was not a surprise to meteorologists at the time – they had watched it cross the Great Plains and into the Midwest the day prior – but nothing could have prepared them for how it would look when it picked up the snow resting atop the lake. 

To observers on both the Canadian and American sides of Lake Erie, a veritable wall of snow was now headed in their direction, and little could be done to avoid it. Even for a region familiar with sudden lake-effect snow squalls, this caught many people off-guard. 

Wind speeds associated with the initial passage of the Arctic front during the morning of January 28th, 1977 were clocked at 50 km/h (sustained) and generated gusts up to 80 km/h.  But by the evening, these winds were sustained at 75 km/h, and gusts well exceeded 100 km/h! 

These tropical storm-force winds effectively blew such an enormous volume of snow horizontally across Lake Erie and dumped it on the surrounding communities that visibility was reduced to nil for over twelve consecutive hours.  

Zero visibility on the roads led to many motorists, including school children in buses, being stranded in their own vehicles with no way of making it to safety, and making it near impossible for any help to come to them. 

Yet almost impossibly, the worst had yet to come. 


" ... By now, the strong winds had created snow drifts nine metres high (or even higher along the shores of Lake Erie near Wainfleet and Port Colborne), completely covering cars, buses, and even small buildings ..."


The Deathly Cold

Coinciding with the passing of the Arctic front, the air temperature dropped fifteen degrees in a matter of hours, plunging from -3˚C to -18˚C. But throughout the overnight period into January 29th, 1977, the temperature plummeted to the minus-twenties and minus-thirties.

With sustained winds averaging around 75 km/h during this time, the wind chill values were in the minus fifties. The minus fifties!

For a region famous for its relatively mild fruit-growing microclimate, these temperatures were so cold that they turned a bad situation dire.

Stranded motorists quite literally froze to death in their vehicles, as engines failed to ignite or ran out of gas. A state of emergency was declared in western New York by then-President Jimmy Carter, while the Canadian Forces were sent out to assist in Canada.

Without exaggeration, the only reliable means of transportation in the region became snowmobiles, which were used extensively by local police and RCMP in the Niagara Region to provide aid for as many as they could.

The Aftermath

The intense blizzard conditions persisted throughout January 29th and 30th, 1977, as the low pressure system responsible for igniting the storm stalled over James Bay.

Gradually, by February 1st, the winds diminished as the system departed, and conditions – meteorologically speaking – improved. Many residents would argue, however, that it would take weeks longer for their own living conditions to improve.

By now, the strong winds had created snow drifts nine metres high (or even higher along the shores of Lake Erie near Wainfleet and Port Colborne), completely covering cars, buses, and even small buildings.

Photo: Jeff Wurstner/Wikimedia Commons, Tonawanda, New York

Photo: Jeff Wurstner/Wikimedia Commons, Tonawanda, New York

These ferocious winds had packed the snow so tightly together in these drifts that traditional snow removal methods became ineffective; in fact, it has been reported that snow drifts twelve metres high outside of Port Colborne took until June of 1977 to melt!

Slowly but surely, with the help of the Armed Forces and local police, people dug themselves out, although some report being trapped in their homes for weeks; perhaps unsurprisingly, the Niagara Region reported an 18 per cent increase in births in the fall of 1977 as a result!

The final price tag for this event on both sides of the border is an estimated $300 million, and led to a total of twenty nine storm-related deaths in the Buffalo area, and at least two in Canada.

Preparing For The Future

While it is clear that a very specific combination of anomalous conditions led to this extraordinary event, the Blizzard of ’77 highlights the importance of winter preparedness.  

Although no one ever imagines such an event could occur again, ensuring you have sufficient supplies in your home, as well as your vehicle, is essential for your survival during any ferocious winter storm.  This includes having an emergency kit stocked with food, water, candles, blankets, flashlights and a radio. 

After all, sometimes the unimaginable can become reality before you even know it.

Do you have your own story from the Blizzard of '77 that you'd like to share? Leave a comment below and let people know how you weathered the storm!

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