Minnesota's "Year Without a Winter"

The Winter of 1997-1998 will go down in history of one of the warmest ever. However, the Winter of 1877-1878 was definitely the mildest of the post-settlement era.

State Climatologist, Jim Zandlo prepared the following summary of the 1877-1878 Winter in the aftermath of another mild Winter, 1986-1987. Responding to questions resulting from that modern-day temperate Winter, Jim's investigation shows us that nothing is new under the sun!
Farmers near Minneapolis were plowing fields until late December 1878. But in spite of the general warmth, three days with subzero temperatures in early January 1878 froze the Mississippi River in Saint Paul so that it was closed for navigation until the 28th of February.  After January 7 only three days through the remainder of  the 'cool' season would experience single digit  temperatures or lower.

The "Monthly Weather Review" from February 1878  reported  prairie fires in Minnesota, Dakota, and Kansas. In that same month active insects in Iowa, grasses sprouting in Dakota,  and the ice cover in Duluth harbor broken up by heavy winds were all reported.

The  continuing  warmth  of March 1878 allowed the first boat arrival in Duluth on the 17th. From research done by naturalist Jim Gilbert, Lake Minnetonka ice is known to have gone out at the earliest date on record, March 11, some 35 days earlier than its median ice-out date of April 15.

The winter of 1877-78 while warmest of record at Minneapolis-St. Paul, was not a dry winter.  The months of December 1877 through February 1878 saw 3.09 inches of precipitation.  For comparison, the  full  record average for December through February  is  2.71 inches.

No simple rule depicts what will follow dry or warm winters;  the range of  precipitation which can follow in the warm season  is large  and but has average values which are very nearly the same as  all other winters.  The perception that 'a drought follows a dry  winter' probably reflects the fact that less snow melt would be available to recharge soil moisture in the springs  following dry winters.

Climate historian, Thomas St. Martin has painstakingly poured through thousands of pioneer era climate records, newspapers, journals, and other documents in his efforts to reconstruct the climate history of the Twin Cities. When Tom comes across a significant climatic event from that era, he prepares a special report to summarize his findings. Tom's reconstruction of the Winter of 1877-1878 follows:

The winter of 1877-1878 -- the so-called winter without a winter -- was one of the most extreme and anomalous events in Upper Midwest meteorological history. Average temperatures at the St. Paul Signal Corps station were far above winter normals: 34 F in December 1877 (with an overnight minimum temperature of 45 F on 22 December), 22 F in January 1878, 32 F in February 1878 and 45 F in March 1878. As these values suggest, springlike temperatures prevailed throughout much of the winter, provoking the 2 March 1878 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press to comment that "....yesterday was the first day of spring, in theory, but in fact we have had the first days of spring nearly all winter...."

Unseasonable warmth began in earnest in mid-December with two weeks of abnormally high temperatures, including readings in the 50's F at the St. Paul station on 21-23 December. The 22 December 1877 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that, as a result of this stretch of warm days (and nights), the "..bottom is said to be terribly out of roads in different localities...." (a condition no doubt similar to that experienced during March and April, the time of year when the area's then unsurfaced and/or unimproved roads were normally disrupted by the annual spring "break-up"). The same edition, in a moment of editorial flippancy, quipped "....down with storm and sash and up with mosquito bars.." On 23 December, the Pioneer Press noted further that "...frogs and spotted snakes are now found hopping and crawling around marshes in the vicinity...." and, on Christmas Day 1877, reported that the Mississippi River at St. Paul was "...clear of ice.."

News and editorial comments continued a similar theme throughout the winter: "two or three sleighs ventured to make their appearance on the streets yesterday, but the snow is altogether too thin and they looked lonesome..." (6 January 1878); "..a disposition of snow was observed yesterday morning, but the commendable attempt was soon frustrated by the June temperatures..." (15 February 1878); "....notwithstanding the patient and persistent snowfall of yesterday. sliding vehicles were not out in heavy force and the sleighing was not worth bragging about..." (17 February 1878); "....sleighing is played out again..." (18 February 1878); "...river ice begins to look porous..robins have made their appearance and are hopping about on farms near the city...if the robin only knew it, he made a bad blunder in leaving Minnesota this winter..." (20 February 1878); "...young blades of grass are showing up above ground..." (28 February 1878); and "....the winter of 1877-78 is gone...we'll ne'er see the likes again...not what might be called a cold day from first to last..." (1 March 1878).

Nor were newspaper commentaries limited to conditions observed in the St. Paul area. The 10 February 1878 edition of the Pioneer Press included a report from Bismarck, Dakota Territory stating "....that cavalrymen of Miles' command left Koegh in shirtsleeves..."; that roads in that area were "disagreeably dusty" and that the "...ice harvest [presumably referring to the Missouri river] is nearly a failure..." And, on 2 March 1878, Elder Ely, a Pioneer Press correspondent from Winona, gave a detailed account of his area's experiences during the winter of 1877-78. Among other things, he noted "...it has now been said for the thousandth time that this has been a strange winter...such a one has never been seen by the oldest inhabitant....no snow to speak of...not a single vehicle of any kind seen on runners in Winona during the entire winter...for the last sixty days, the surface of the ground has been dry and dusty at least one half of the time....honey bees came out of their hives to work...the last day of winter was as mild as May....buds on the maple trees are beginning to swell...." Ely also noted that the demand for winter clothing was low and the fuel bills were "cut in half". He also reported that there was "open water for steamboats until the 10th of January" and that "...river ice which is normally 20 to 24 inches thick was only 12 inches thick and lasted for only a month..."

St. Paul's precipitation during the winter months of 1877-78 was near normal (with a total of about three inches). Although, as noted previously, no quantitative snowfall records were kept by St. Paul observers prior to 1884, indirect evidence (e.g. month end snow cover, newspaper accounts, descriptive entries on St. Paul and Ft. Snelling station records, etc.) suggest that significant snowfall occurred at several times during the winter (particularly in January 1878). Moreover, the snowfall/meltwater conversion tables used by the National Weather Service, when applied to the melted precipitation values recorded at the St. Paul station during the 1877-78 "cold season", suggest a total seasonal snowfall of 25 to 35 inches,  about half of which probably fell during January. Interestingly, the March 1878 record clearly indicates that NO snow fell during that month, thereby making it one of only two snowless Marches in the entire St. Paul record (with the other recorded by Smithsonian observer A. B. Paterson in 1860). As might be expected, the winter of 1877-78 was also quite cloudy and foggy. St. Paul observers recorded 16 cloudy days in November 1877; 14 cloudy days in December 1877; 15 cloudy days in January 1878 and 12 cloudy days in February 1878. March 1878, in contrast, had only nine cloudy days.

The winter of 1877-78 followed an autumn that, despite an unusually warm September (64 F), produced generally normal temperatures (47 F in October and 33 F in November 1877). The summer of 1877 included a cool June (64 F) and a warm July and August (both with average temperatures of 73 F). May 1877 was warm (62 F), April was near normal (46 F), March was cold (24 F) and February 1877, like February 1878, was abnormally warm (32 F). Like the winter that preceded it, calendar year 1878 was generally warm. Although May 1878 was cool (55 F), most of the other months of the year were warm, especially July 1878 (75 F) and November 1878 (39 F). The annual average temperature was about 49 F, making 1878 one of the warmest years ever recorded at a St. Paul station. Precipitation during 1878 totaled about 23 inches, a value well below the long term St. Paul average of 28.3 inches.


-    Return to the "Minnesota's Balmy Winter" Page

URL: http://climate.umn.edu/doc/journal/wint77_78.html
Last modified: February 20, 1998