On January 13, 1963, most Upper Michigan residents were digging out from a healthy snowstorm that blew across the area the day before. What they did not know was that one of the bitterest stretches of the 20th century was descending upon them. Here is the story:
Mild, tranquil weather covered Upper Michigan the first week and a half of 1963. Persistent warmth whittled away a good deal of the thin snow cover. Then, in time-honored fashion, a healthy snowstorm hit Upper Michigan on January 12 followed by a bitter cold wave. On January 13, the high was only 9 above and the low 4 below zero. Then two days later, Marquette recorded its coldest temperature since 1936 on January 15, with 18 degrees below zero. Locations away from the warming influence of Lake Superior dropped even lower. Iron Mountain and Escanaba both registered 22 below and Menominee plunged to 24 below zero.
On January 22, the mandatory cold weather story in the local paper began with this dramatic opening: "Severest cold wave in decades raged on today with bitter west winds ripping pedestrians like razor blades." The next day, Iron Mountain recorded its 11th straight day with temperatures below zero; it bottomed out there at 30 below. Outlying areas in Dickinson County had readings as low as 40 below zero. Most schools in the U.P. were closed due to the brutal cold. A thermometer at the Herman post in Baraga County registered 43 degrees below zero. Farther east, it also plunged to 43 below at Wetmore in Alger County. At the foot of Lake Superior, Sault Ste. Marie checked in with 30 below and Marquette endured its coldest January day in recorded history on the 23rd with a high of 8 below and a low down to 21 below zero.
The cold spread southward during late January 1963. Atlanta recorded its first subzero temperature of the 20th century late in the month, and Chicago experienced its coldest month in history; registering 19 consecutive days below zero in January 1963.
An extensive front-page story from the Associated Press explained that while "air circulation may not be an ear-perking conversational tidbit" it was having "a jolting impact" on millions of people in the United States. The article went on to explain how a huge ridge of high pressure stalled off the west coast of North America kept directing mild southerly airflow into Alaska, while north to northwesterly flow directed bitter air from the "inexhaustible supply of cold" in the arctic through much of interior North America (Image 1 above). The winter of 1963 saw exceptionally strong intrusions of cold all the way to the citrus regions of Florida and even southern California.
Like the infamous cold 19th century winters of 1875 and 1885, North America shared the bitter siege with the Old World. The "Great Cold of 1963" spread "death, misery and chaos" across much of Western Europe. The Thames River froze from bank to bank at Kingston for the first time since 1895. It would be the only time in the 20th century the river froze to such an extent. At Southampton, fish reportedly froze where they swam, sticking their heads out of the ice. Seabirds then skated along the ice and picked at them. In central Italy, the Venice lagoon was reported covered with ice. In Salonika, Greece, drifts up to five feet deep were reported, while snow piled up on Italy's Adriatic Coast. The phenomenon there was declared "a rare sight." Farther north on the Oresund, the strip of water separating Denmark from Sweden, some Danes walked halfway across it, while others "rode bicycles on the sea" and got in the way of icebreakers.
As February advanced and the cold hung on, ice began to clog the Great Lakes. By February 19, Arthur J. Myers, chief meteorologist at the Sault Ste. Marie Weather Bureau, declared Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan virtually ice-covered. It was an occurrence he deemed "most unusual." A Coast Guard icebreaker reported ice three inches thick with several inches of snow on top from Port Huron all the way to Detroit.
The Chippewa County car ferry transported Drummond Island High school students across Detour passage to the mainland of eastern Upper Michigan. Finally, in mid-February the captain tied up at Detour after his steering gear broke for the third time under the pressure of ice up to 18 inches thick. Students then got written permission from their parents to drive their cars over the ice bridge of the passage to get to school. At Menominee, three feet of ice on Green Bay forced the suspension of car ferry service to Lower Michigan. By the end of February, a Trans-Canada Airlines pilot reported only scattered patches of open water on Lake Superior no more than an acre or two in size.
Richard Wright began teaching at Northern Michigan College in the fall of 1962. Flying back to his home in Indiana for spring break in early March, he received visual confirmation that Lake Superior was frozen: "The pilot of what was then North Central Airlines took the plane far out over the lake and banked both left and right to show us the surface of the lake, which was frozen as far as the eye could see."
Lake Superior ice coverage is well ahead of recent years and it appears that after a mild stretch, more ice-making weather is on the way. The same pattern featured in the above Associated Press article of 1963 is forecast to be with us again by late week (Image 2). This outbreak will not be as cold as the one last week, but it will send some of the â??inexhaustible supply of coldâ?? air over Canada south again.