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Recalling the Columbus Day Storm of '62

by Randy Mann
| October 11, 2015 7:23 PM

We’re well into the fall season across the Inland Empire and last Wednesday, North Idaho finally received some much-needed rainfall. Despite a high barometric pressure, that particular storm managed to hold together and dropped .29 inches of moisture at Cliff’s station. Most other regions reported similar amounts.

As of this writing on Friday, Oct. 9, it appeared that another system was poised to move into the area over the weekend. It seemed very promising for more showers along with strong winds.

As we move farther into the autumn season, our region often experiences wind storms that will down trees and power lines. The early spring and fall periods are a time of ‘transition,’ or collisions, between the cold and warm air masses that will occasionally generate strong winds across the area.

On Oct. 12, 1962, one of the biggest windstorms in history blew through the western U.S. It was called the “Columbus Day Storm of 1962” and also known as the “Big Blow.” The storm actually began as Typhoon Freda that formed in the central Pacific Ocean. The storm did weaken over the colder Pacific waters, but got caught in the Polar Jet Stream and moved over the West Coast. During that time, it rained so hard in San Francisco that some of the games of the World Series had to be postponed.

According to the National Weather Service, the Columbus Day Storm was the top weather event for Washington in the 20th Century. On that day, one of the strongest widespread non-hurricane wind storms hit from northern California to British Columbia. It claimed 46 lives, blew down 15 billion board feet of timber totaling $750 million (1962 dollars). Property damage in the region was over $235 million.

The strongest winds were along the Washington and Oregon coastline. Wind gusts in western Washington were incredible. Speeds to 150 miles per hour were reported at Naselle. That speed is the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. Winds at Bellingham and Vancouver hit 92 miles per hour. Tacoma had a 88-mile-per-hour gust with an amazing 131 mile per hour gust at Mt. Hebo.

In our region, winds were not quite as strong. Gusts in North Idaho were estimated around 60 to 80 miles per hour. According to Cliff’s records, the highest wind speed in Coeur d’Alene did occur during the Columbus Day Storm in 1962. There was a wind gust of 73 miles per hour. That’s one mile per hour lower than a Category 1 hurricane. In Spokane, wind speeds on that date did not break a record. The top wind gust ever recorded at the airport was 77 miles per hour on June 21, 2005.

Just in case you were wondering, the highest wind speed every recorded on earth occurred on April 10, 1996, at Barrow Island in Australia. At an automatic weather station, the passage of Tropical Cyclone Olivia resulted in an incredible wind gust of 253 miles per hour. The previous record was at Mount Washington in New Hampshire in 1934 when a gust of 231 miles per hour was recorded.

Strong winds are the result of large differences in atmospheric pressure from one area to another. Air will flow from high to low pressure. The larger the difference in pressure, the faster the wind. The fall season is the time of year when the “Santa Ana Winds” develop in southern California. The winds originate from a high pressure system over the Great Basin and upper Mojave Desert. As the air blows toward the coast, the area of lower pressure, it often channels through the valleys and canyons and results in higher wind speeds. It’s also heating up and dries out as it travels down the mountains.

With the strong El Nino, the abnormal warming of sea-surface temperatures, officials are concerned with an increase of those Santa Ana winds. However, there has been some valuable moisture falling in Southern California over the past month, but conditions in the southern portions of the Golden State are still extremely dry.

In terms of our weather, that big ridge of high pressure that brought us the record dry conditions since early June, is expected to rebuild over the Far West this week. Most of the moisture should stay well to the east. There may be some showers sometime next week as the ridge weakens a bit. As I mentioned last week, the rest of the fall looks like a pattern of near to below normal moisture. And, we may see some storms that will produce some rain and strong winds toward the end of the month.

Randy Mann can be reached at randy@longrangeweather.com