History and Weather Disasters: The Columbus Day Storm

One Friday afternoon in October, the skies above began to change; from what used to be a clear blue sky turned into a gut wrenching yellow and green hue tinted with dark rumbling clouds. No one in Oregon has ever seen anything of that kind before. A woman in her office agreed with her co-workers to head home and be with their families. Little did she know that the storm that was surging in would soon be the cause of her nightmares not too far into the future. In another side of Oregon, a father who never used to take his kids home from school, showed up fighting the wind to bring his kids one by one into the car. There were people in the school bus that had brought chainsaws to clear a path for the children to go since the trees and polls were being torn down by the ruthless wind.

Photo Credits: OregonLive.com

Photo Credits: OregonLive.com

On October 10 1962, two days before Columbus Day, a storm was beginning to form from the gulf of Alaska. Heavy and cold air collided with the lighter and moist air just from the north of the equator. The next day, the process aforementioned repeated itself and the storm gained even more strength. Friday came, and in that afternoon the winds that were developing finally unraveled its worse, from 52 mph in Yreka, CA to 138 mph in Newport, OR. On that day a climatologist named George Taylor stated that the storm was the “pinnacle of a type of weather event that is quite common in Oregon” “A mid-latitude synoptic-scale cyclone.” So what is a mid-latitude cyclone in the synoptic scale?

A mid-latitude cyclone is a low pressure area characterized by a cyclonic movement in other words, it moves counter clockwise. It is neither a hurricane nor a tropical storm since the size of a mid-latitude cyclone is significantly larger. A research published in the Monthly Weather Review concluded that “The results of the preceding sections demonstrate that synoptic scale cyclone systems can be centers of intense energy exchange”. Synoptic scale is simply any chart or map that has the details of the presented atmosphere in a large area in a certain period in time.

This mid latitude synoptic-scale cyclone would later on be known as the “Big Blow” or “The Columbus Day Storm.” The windstorm tore its way onto the memories of the Americans, especially those living in Oregon, where the peek gust of 138 mph was recorded. The Big Blow surpassed the 1957 Hurricane Hazel with a recorded peak gust of 127 mph. The Columbus Day Storm is the most powerful storm to have ever hit the Pacific Northwest in the 20th century. The storm had left a trail of death, destruction and fear on its wake with a recorded death toll of 46 people and had left 317 others injured in hospitals. Properties that would total millions were destroyed, including 70% of the structures in Lake Oswego, Oregon and 16 thousands of trees; some of which were a thousand years old, uprooted and blown away.

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