Follow up: Northwest's 'Storm King' 1880 storm on par with Sandy?

Photo courtesy: Wolf Read

On Thursday, I wondered if the Pacific Northwest could ever have a storm similar to Sandy. The answer was: not exactly, but I did paint a hypothetical case of what might be a worst case scenario here of a combined wind, rain and snow storm.

It turns out, I almost described a storm that did actually strike the Northwest before: The "Storm King" of January 9, 1880.

Noted local windstorm researcher Wolf Read has described the storm as one of the strongest ever to strike the Northwest and could likely battle the great Columbus Day Storm of 1962 as the greatest of all time.

This was an intense storm that brought extreme winds to Oregon -- and extreme snow to Washington, although still pales in comparison to the destruction Sandy caused (then again, the population around here in 1880 wasn't exactly crowded).

The challenge in the comparisons is that weather observations from 1880 were very sporadic so it's difficult to really map out what happened. Read's research goes into great detail on what he was able to determine based on the few observations he had and, combined with some old newspaper clippings and good old-fashioned sleuthing using clues about damage reports, he was able to paint a pretty decent picture of what happened.

This storm wasn't quite as strong as Sandy (Storm King was estimated around 955 mb; Sandy was at 946) and unlike Sandy which spared no one in its path, there was a swath of the region that escaped the Storm King relatively unscathed.

But what makes the Storm King unique was that it came on the heels of a major snow event in Washington in the days before. There was already at least two feet of snow around the Puget Sound area when the Storm King made landfall as an estimated 955 mb monster around Astoria. With the strongest winds out of the south on the southern side of the low, Oregon was blasted with what Read estimates are at least 60-75 mph gusts, with perhaps some even higher gusts based on the amount of trees that were felled in the storm.

Yet the north side of the storm with its northerly winds, it reenforced an arctic air mass and combined it with tremendous amounts of moisture for what were near-record short-term durations of snowfall around the Puget Sound area, Read says. Some spots around Seattle got two feet of snow in short order. But Seattle did not get any wind damage.

"Seattle reported no wind-related damage, even though the barometer fell as low as 28.41" at Port Townsend to the north," Read wrote. "The entire Puget Lowlands was spared a severe blow, but suffered a tremendous snowstorm instead." (This does speak to my point Thursday that it would be hard pressed to get a wind storm and snow storm together in the same location, although some of the Oregon locations did get some snow after the storm passed)

Read figures the storm tracked into Astoria, then across southwestern Washington and perhaps over Mt. St. Helens area into Eastern Washington. Those in the path of the storm, ironically, didn't have much of the storm at all -- unlike a hurricane, weather is generally calmer near the center of a mid-latitude low pressure storm because the pressure differences are lower.

But once the storm passed, the snow reached down into southwestern Washington and Oregon as well.

"Kalama... mentioned four inches of snow on the ground there, two to three feet between Winlock and Tenino, and three to five feet between Tenino and Tacoma," Read wrote. "According to the Kalama train that arrived on the 11th, the snow at Tacoma was 35 inches deep early Friday, and this figure had jumped to 54 inches by Monday afternoon. Snow loading caused problems all over the affected region. Olympia reported severe damage to structures. Sheds and barns collapsed at Port Townsend. In Seattle, on the 8th, flakes accumulated at the rate of 1.5" an hour with temperatures just above freezing, making for a heavy, wet blanket. The weight of the snow base had reached 52 pounds per square foot, causing roofs to fail; with four feet 'on the level,' it was said to be the heaviest snowfall since at least 1852."

Some of the other notes from the storm, via Read's research:

* Seattle had light winds, but 2 feet of new snow with 4-6 feet on the ground by the end of the storm.
* Port Townsend had 4 feet of total snow accumulation.
* Tacoma: 19" of new snow; 54" on the ground
* Olympia: 30" of snow
* Astoria (OR): Light damage, but just down the road at Ft. Clatsop, "terrific west wind" knocks over several snow-laden trees
* Kalama, Wash. -- A gale breeze out of northwest; 4" of snow
* Forest Grove, Oregon (under track of storm:) No damage
* Vancouver, Wash. -- 25% of trees blown down
* Portland: South gusts of 60-70 mph; 100 structures damaged, all time record low barometer reading of 28.56"
* Salem, OR: Southerly winds damage roof of State House, many trees down, then 7" of snow.
* Coos Bay, Ore: "Violent storm" -- schooner dragged ashore.

Here is his complete map of notes:

Of course, had a storm of that magnitude struck today, you can imagine the damage and chaos to the region. To try to think of an even worse case scenario, if we brought in another great warm, Pineapple Express storm on this kind of storm's heels, that would be about the worst it could get around here, I'd wager.

Let's just not try to find out for sure...