October 10, 2012

The Columbus Day Storm 50th Anniversary

It was the most powerful and destructive storm to strike the Northwest since the arrival of European settlers.

AND it was probably the most powerful non-tropical cyclone to strike the lower-48 states during the past century.

The Columbus Day Storm occurred on October 12, 1962, with the fiftieth anniversary this week.

I have thought a lot about this event, partially because one of my research areas has been intense Northwest storms and in part because I am giving a talk on Thursday at Kane Hall.

The winds during the storm were amazing (see graphic of peak gusts, courtesy Wolf Read). Over 145 mph at Cape Blanco, 138 mph at Newport, over 130 mph at Mt. Hebo, 160 mph at the Naselle radar site in SW Washington, 116 in Portland, and 100 mph in Renton (so those people who put down Renton keep this in mind!). 

The central pressure of the Columbus Day Storm (CDS) dropped to approximately 955 hPa and was equivalent in pressure and winds to a category 3 hurricane (like Katrina as it struck New Orleans).    I have little doubt that if the CDS hit today it would result in many billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars of damage.  The Columbus Day Storm was FAR stronger than the "Perfect Storm" (Halloween 1991) of movie fame.  I mean it wasn't even close.

Before the storm was over 46 people had died, 317 were hospitalized, and 15 billion board feet of timber, enough to build 300,000 homes, had fallen.  Millions had lost power, with the twin high-tension power lines to Portland toppled like some children's Tinker Toys.

An interesting aspect of this storm was that is started as Typhoon Freda in the western Pacific.  Moving northward, this storm weakened and transitioned into a midlatitude cyclone.   In doing so, it switched energy sources from the warmth and moisture of the tropical Pacific to the differences in temperatures found in the midlatitudes (sort of a meteorological version of a hybrid car).  Moving across the Pacific, it swung south into a large trough over the eastern Pacific and then moved northward along the West Coast, growing very rapidly (see graphic of the path over the eastern Pacific of that storm and a few other big ones).

Here is a surface analysis (by Lynott and Cramer 1966) when the storm was immediately off the Oregon coast around 3 PM on October 12th).  Huge pressure gradients (differences) along the coast, which resulted in the amazing winds.

Did they forecast this event skillfully?  Alas, the answer is no.  The weather prediction made on October 11th was for improving conditions and no storm.  Only early on the 12th, when some ominous ship reports were received, did Weather Bureau forecasters realize that there was a serious storm approaching the region.

At my presentation on Thursday I will show a simulation that Rick Steed of my group made of this storm using a modern weather prediction system (WRF model).  We still failed to get a good forecast and I think I know the reason:  lack of enough data over the Pacific to initialize the model.  But don't worry, today we have so much information over the oceans (satellite data, aircraft information, buoys) that I have little doubt we would get the forecast correct.  In fact, my colleagues at the National Weather Service have not missed a major Northwest windstorm a day out since roughly 1990.


  1. Surprised to see the wind gust at Corvallis at 127 mph! Looks like that was by far the windiest spot for a non-coastal station (40 miles as the the osprey flies).

  2. Remember it well. I was about 13 and lived in N. Portland. I was walking up the street, delivering my paper route (my bike was broken down, that day). One of the first gusts knocked me right on my can. And I was a pretty hefty little kid.

    We spent the night in the basement. The next day, we found a banner in the yard from a gas station five miles away. My grade schools roof (Chief Joseph Elementary) landed in the playing field. We couldn't even get into the local parks, there were so many trees down.

    Young folks ask why we had no warning and I have to remind them that there were no weather satellites at that time. I fully expect to see another storm of such magnitude in my life time.

  3. I was reading a story , cant remember where, but that this event of the magnitude of the Columbus day storm might be a one in 1,000 year event possibly more.
    Not sure if it was on the STORM KING website, it may have been.

    I was born 10 years too late!

  4. Is there any way those of us unable to make the presentation tomorrow can still see Rick Steed's WRF simulation of the event? That'd be incredibly interesting.

  5. Here's a weather blog that will make you smile. Star Tribune It's out of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the writing is good.

  6. How does it compare to the Great Blizzard of 1978?

  7. It would be neat to see a website that collected people's stories on this event and maybe there is one. I was living near Portland, but alas, only about 18 months at the time, so I don't have any memories of it. But my older sisters (who were 9 and 10 at the time) have a great story about my father sending them out by themselves to retrieve our horse from a pasture in a different neighborhood to bring it somewhere safe and them arriving to find the barn GONE. The horse was okay, but I hear walking it home was quite an event in the middle of the storm. Of course we all laugh about it now--that my dad thought it was okay to send them out in that storm alone. My family had that horse its entire life until it passed on in its 30s. I love hearing the stories.

  8. I remember that day well. I was 5 and my Dad drove us down to the Kirkland waterfront to watch the waves crash along the Lake Washington shore. Downtown Kirkland was much different then and you could pull right up to the beach and park. A few days later we were driving up Juanita Drive and the forest where 76th Pl NE meets Juanita Dr was completely leveled. To this day I still see that once again wooded parcel laying flat every time I drive past there.

  9. I was 5 yrs old living on Rose Hill near Kirkalnd and on that Friday evening I accompanied my mom in the car to nearby Art's Food Center at Rose Hill Village on NE 85th ST. The weather was calm at around 7 pm when we entered the store with not a clue of the approaching storm. Not long after, the power went out while we were inside Art's. Naturally the store was then closed and when we got outside the wind was literally howling and lots of sll branches, leaves and other debris were being carried by the wind, very scary. On the drive home we were unable to take our regular route because of trees down across the road blocking nearly every street. After turningaround a couple of times, we were able to make it home to find the power out there as well. I remember that the chimney whistled during strong gusts; had never heard it make that sound before and never heard it again. Power was out for several days, and we cooked on our camp stove.

  10. What's with this long range forecast from Weather Underground on Thursday, October 11th...for October 21st:
    Saturday Night
    Overcast with a chance of rain. Fog overnight. Low of 28F. Winds less than 5 mph. Chance of rain 40%.

    Overcast with a chance of snow. Fog early. High of 43F. Winds less than 5 mph. Chance of snow 50%.

    From 70 degrees to SNOW in one and a half weeks?????

  11. I was 9. The family had launched our 23 ft runabout with a 65 Mercury outboard on the back from the alki boat launch. It started as a calm day. We headed south to Dash Point to rendezvous with family. At three tree point my father saw the wind and sea was massively picking up. We tried to beach the boat at Shorewood but the surf was too high. We put back out and ran with the sea taking green water over the bow as we powered to the bottom of the rollers. With a foot or so of freeboard we couldn't slow down.

  12. Great event tonight on the UW Campus! I'm always impressed by the atmosphere's power and ability to surprise and impact in such dramatic ways. Thanks for a nice program from one that's observed and appreciated the weather since I was a child. I sincerely appreciated the various presenters' ability to put the Columbus Day Storm in perspective and thanks for furthering my interest in meteorology.

  13. lhsouthern, I was in Centralia, too! We holed up in the basement laundry room (in the center of the house). We were without power for 2 weeks.

  14. The afternoon of the 11th three Oregon State officials and I returned from a meeting in Seattle. The flight back was extremely rough and several people got sick. There was no announcement from the pilot. except about seat belts.

    We retrieved our state car & headed south. Around Salem I realized I had the gas peddle pressed to the floor and we were going 35mph. Then a pheasant flew backwards across the road. We noticed that all the billboards were lying flat on the ground and many cars were parked under bridge overpasses. Of course being a state car it had no radio, so we had no idea what was going on.

    By the time we reached Albany the wind had abated. But the streets were 6 inches deep in green confetti from the leaves blown off the trees, and many store windows were blown out.

    By the time we reached Corvallis it was as if nothing had happened except for obvious damage to some buildings. My wife had togive me the blow by blow description of the storm we had just passed through.

  15. I was 10, and we lived near the top of Mt Scott (near Happy Valley Oregon). I remember the strange yellow color to the sky and what looked like tumbleweeds rolling up the street. My Dad was on the way home from work, and ended up having to cut through Lincoln Memorial Cemetery because trees had already come down on the main road. We had a Heathkit anemometer, which pegged at 80 mph, and then broke when the sensor was torn off the roof. We spent the night in the basement, listening to windows breaking, and the wind roaring like a freight train. A lot of the shingles were torn off the roof and buried themselves in the side of my Dad's house trailer. The next morning, we went outside to find most of the big trees were down, all of the power lines were down, the KPOJ transmission towers were gone. We walked up to look, and all 3 of them were down, laying like crumpled paperclips on the ground. Up the steet from the radio station, a neighbors house had the roof ripped off and thrown into their backyard. We later found out that the family spent most of the night huddled in the woods waiting for the winds to subside.

  16. I lived in Yakima at the time. We just continued picking apples. The eastbound Northern Pacific North Coast Limited pulled into Yakima, right on time at 5:45 PM.

    Life was good in Yakima on Columbus Day 1962.

  17. Cliff, do you have your presentation from last night at Kane Hall on video? I wanted to go but it was sold out!

    Thanks so much.

  18. Cliff - is the building Campbell Hall at the Western Oregon Campus in Monmouth?

  19. "In fact, my colleagues at the National Weather Service have not missed a major Northwest windstorm a day out since roughly 1990."

    So why are their marine forecasts for the Puget Sound area always so alarmist? The disparity between www.noaa.gov and sailflow.com is huge (and almost always in sailflow's favor), and the predicted wave size likewise very often grossly exaggerated.

  20. 8I remember putting my hair up in big rollers in front of the living room mirror when the lights went out.
    Our home looks out over the dip between Golden Gardens and Carkeek Park - what a veiw of wind-whipped trees and water!


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