The Year Without a Winter: 1877-78

The Winter of 1877-78 is the warmest Meteorological Winter on record in the Twin Cities.

The winter of 1877-78 was dubbed the "Year without a Winter." Indeed, the winter of 1877-78 is the warmest winter on record for the Twin Cities with a December-February average temperature of 29 degrees. The next winter that compares is 1930-31 with an average temperature of 26.9 degrees. In 3rd place is the winter of 2001-02 with 26.8 degrees.

So, how did the residents of the Twin Cities feel about their record setting warm winter in 1877-78? While residents may enjoy the ease of driving around the Twin Cities in 2012, travel was a hardship in the winter of 1877-78 for a population who depended on travel by horse and sleigh. Most roads were dirt, and the lack of snow hampered travel. Businesses were affected by the inability to move goods.

Farmers near Minneapolis were plowing fields until late December 1877. 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 33 days earlier than its average ice-out date of April 13. Lake Osakis lost its ice on March 13th, the earliest in 142 years of records.

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 1981-2010 normal for December through February is 2.83 inches.

Below are interesting excerpts from the Minneapolis Tribune, courtesy long time climatology volunteer Tom St. Martin.

Minneapolis observer William Cheney regularly prepared monthly newspaper weather summaries which, to the extent that they were published, augment and sometimes clarify data contained in his meteorological registers as submitted to the U.S. Weather Bureau/ U.S. Army Signal Corps. The following comments are taken from the observer?s reports as published in various 1877-1878 editions of the Minneapolis Tribune:

November 1877: Warmest November since 1870. Rain on the 1st and 2nd with snow on the 7th and 8th falling to a depth of three inches. Two inches of snow on the 18th. Three inches of snow on the 27th and 28th accompanied by a high wind. Snow on the 8th and 18th melted soon after it fell. Rain on the 21st made the roads bad. Large proportion of cloudy weather.

December 1877: Unprecedented, untimely, unpleasant and sub-boreal weather. Large number of foggy and rainy days. Deep mud. Farmers plowing as late as the 23rd. River free of ice above and below Lake Pepin up to the last day of the month. Flowers blooming on the 28th. Five inches of snow on the 4th and 5th gave a short period of good sleighing. Rain fell more or less every day from the 17th to the 27th, inclusive. Heavy fog on 18, 19, 20, 21. Sleighing entirely gone by mid month with roads almost impassible because of mud. Only four entirely clear days and fifteen cloudy days. Closest approach to December 1877 was December 1857.

January 1878: The month was colder than December but unusually warm for January...there were only two very cold days during the snow fell in sufficient amounts for sleighing until the 30th when about six and one half inches of light snow gave pretty good sleighing in the city but not sufficient for heavy teaming. The mud of December frozen by the cold of the first few days of January made the roads exceedingly rough and travel thereon very uncomfortable. The absence of snow proved a serious drawback to business of all kinds...thirteen cloudy days...

February 1878: This month closes the most remarkable winter ever known in Minnesota. Scarcely any sleighing, muddy roads, some fog, only five days...below zero,...and a mean temperature ten degrees warmer than any winter of which I have any record...The almost entire absence of snow has been somewhat detrimental to business generally and has proved a serious drawback to logging...The winter certainly has been a pleasant and comfortable one, making small demands on the fuel pile...While the mean temperature of the month was about the same as February of last year, it was in some respects less pleasant. There was more cloudy weather and two storms gave us five and one fourth inches of snow, making considerable mud...The season is not quite so far advanced as last year though wheat sowing is reported to have begun in some parts of the state...thirteen cloudy days....

March 1878: This was decidedly the warmest March of which I have any record...being 21 degrees warmer than the average of March for the last thirteen years and twelve degrees warmer than the average of 33 years at Ft. Snelling. There were occasional showers throughout the month, which, together with the mild temperatures, served to bring forward vegetation very rapidly...Wheat sowing was nearly all completed before the close of the month....No snow fell except for a slight sprinkling on the morning of the 30th, no enough to whiten the ground...six cloudy days....

April 1878: This month, like its immediate predecessors, was an exceptional one, being the warmest April of which I have any record....Only once during the month...did the thermometer fall below freezing...The rainfall was fully up to that vegetation made steady and rapid progress...nine cloudy days...

May 1878: While the winter months and the first two months of spring were exceptionally warm, the month of May was unusually cold, being the coldest May since serious frosts have occurred, however, and with the abundance of rain, the weather has, on the whole, been very favorable to crops...The rain was...well distributed throughout the month, although the larger part fell in the latter half....a slight sprinkling of snow on one day...."

Last modified: July 9, 2015


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