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The term snowsquall is used a lot in forecasting, but what does it mean? We explain.

Blizzards of the Century: Six insane North American snowstorms

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, November 23, 2014, 9:00 PM -

When a North American city gets pummelled so hard by snow you have the measure the totals in feet, as Buffalo was, your thoughts can't help but turn to whether it was the worst snowstorm ever.

There are countless storms on this continent that epitomized winter's fury, but by what measure would we choose the worst? Monthly records? Single-event? Single-day?

Rather than make this a scientific ranking, we picked a few North American examples that stood out, whether due to the sheer amount that fell in one go, or the kind of hardship it caused people in the area.

We'll start with the obvious: The most snow ever to fall in 24 hours.

Silver Lake, Colorado, April 14-15, 1921

To people in Buffalo wondering if the absurd snowfall totals blanketing their city are a new record, the answer is: Pretty close.

DON'T MISS: 10 Insane #BuffaloSnow tweets.

One part of the region, just outside Buffalo, may have got a total of 165 cm of snow over a 24-hour period, according to the Weather Underground. Which is, in fact, less than the all-time observed record snowfall in North America.

That crown is held by Silver Lake, in the mountains of Colorado, where an epic blizzard dumped 192 cm – almost two metres – of snow in a single day.

And the flakes didn’t stop once the 24th hour ran out. According to this paper in a 1950s meteorological journal, more than 250 cm of snow fell over 85 hours. 

The paper reads rather a bit like it was written by somebody who for years heard the story of Silver Lake and couldn’t shake the feeling that there was no way that was actually possible (turns out it was).

But if we’re going beyond the 24-hour cut-off, Wyoming County, east of Buffalo, also came a bit close to the record. According to National Weather Service figures (published in this Syracuse newspaper), a total of 223 cm may have fallen there over the four-day period the storm smashed the picturesque, though largely uninhabited site.

We doubt the people buried in their homes would quibble over the difference of a few centimeters, though.

Tahtsa Lake, B.C., February 11, 1999

Despite Canada's reputation as the land of winter, you may be surprised to find our country’s largest-ever 24-hour snowfall is actually considerably less than the staggering record set at Silver Lake, Colorado.

The most we ever managed was the paltry 145 cm that fell at Tahtsa Lake, B.C., on February 11, 1999, about up to chest-height on the average human being. 

Yes that was, in fact, in British Columbia.

Although Canada’s Pacific province is famed for the balmy winters of Vancouver and Victoria, the province’s north and interior are very, very different, especially the higher you get. Eight of Canada's ten largest single-day snowfalls are in B.C.

Tahtsa Lake isn’t burned into our cultural memory because the site, near Prince George, is mostly uninhabited. But it seems to be in a bit of a sweet spot for extreme snowfall. 

Nearby Lakelse Lake got 118 cm in January 1974, a little more than 25 years earlier.

Image credit: Keith Freeman / Wikimedia Commons

Might be a cursed date, too. The very same day Tahtsa Lake entered the history books, the B.C. city of Terrace was walloped by 113 cm, earning it a top-ten spot also.

Saskatchewan, Winter 1947

Going through all of Canada’s history, every province has its “blizzard of the century.” We chose Saskatchewan’s winter of 1947 because it basically shut the whole place down.

This week-by-week lookback from the Oxbow Herald gives you an idea of how rapidly things went south on the Canadian Prairie. The storms started boxing day, and continued, on and off, for weeks.

Image Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board

We can just imagine the exasperation in the newsroom of the Regina Leader-Post in mid-January, 1947, when the front page read “Province Just One Big Snowdrift.” And even then, the worst was yet to come, with storm after storm finally culminating in a 10-day monster, ending on February 8, that Environment Canada calls the worst storm in Canadian railroad history.

Transportation shut down almost completely, with tracks shut for days or weeks, and some roads closed until the spring. Crews had to dig down for several metres just to find the tracks. Only the tops of telephone poles were visible in some districts.

Image Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board

Supplies in and out of the region slowed to a trickle. Home delivery was impossible, and people would struggle through the snows to central supply depots for their milk and other groceries. The sheer cold threatened coal supplies.

For farmers, it was a nightmare. One story holds that one man fed his chickens by tossing grain down through the coop chimney. Another cut a whole in his barn roof to keep his cattle fed, and still others went from home to shed in completely submerged snow tunnels.

We get the impression from the Leader-Post lookback that things slowly began to ease after mid-February, by which point an uncertain number of fatalities had been reported.

NEXT PAGE: Toronto and Montreal get their own blizzards of the century

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