50th Anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm

By: Christopher C. Burt , 7:34 PM GMT on October 12, 2012

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50th Anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm of October 12, 1962

Today, October 12th, marks the 50th anniversary of the ‘Big Blow’ as the intense extra-tropical storm that hit the Pacific Northwest on October 12, 1962 is knick-named. This storm ranked as one of the deadliest and most destructive in that region’s and United States history. Here is summary of the storm.

Synoptics

On October 4, 1962 a tropical storm in the western Pacific named Frieda reached typhoon status near Wake Island. Frieda’s winds peaked the following day at 115 mph sustained. The typhoon drifted north and east in to the cool waters of the north-central Pacific where the storm lost its tropical characteristics and merged with an extra-tropical low that was moving east well south of Alaska. At the same time a strong subtropical jet looped along to the south of the surface low and fed additional moisture into the system. The cyclone moved to the southeast to a point about 300 miles west of the central California coast by October 11-12. At this point the storm intensified rapidly and began to move northeasterly along the coast of the Pacific Northwest.



The track of the Columbus Day storm from its inception as a typhoon on October 3 to the time it made landfall as a powerful extra-tropical storm on Vancouver Island, Canada on October 13th. The storm became extra-tropical in the West Pacific on October 9th. USWB chart reproduced in Weatherwise magazine’s December 1962 issue.



Surface weather map for 4 p.m. PST, about the time the weather station in Corvallis, Oregon was abandoned (see below). Map from Weatherwise magazine December 1962 p. 239.

It is interesting to note that this is not synoptically the same type of event that normally brings powerful storms to the Pacific Northwest and California; the so-called pineapple expresses that result in a long fetch of moisture from the Hawaiian Islands to the U.S. west coast. The pineapple expresses almost always occur during the winter months whereas intense October storms are often associated with decaying ex-typhoons (the most recent example being on October 13, 2009).

The Storm

The Columbus Day Storm of October 12, 1962 is also known as the ‘Big Blow’ as a result of the intense winds associated with the storm. In fact, no other storm (at least since the famous ‘Storm King of January 1880) has ever produced winds on the scale of this event in Oregon or Washington history. Some 15 billion board feet of timber was lost in the two states (enough wood to build 300,000 homes) and 6000 trees were blown down in the city of Portland, Oregon alone. Unfortunately, we can only estimate what the peak wind gusts may have been since the weather stations that measured the top wind speeds were literally blown apart prior to the storm peaking in intensity. The anemometer at Cape Blanco, on the southern Oregon coast and usually one of the windiest locations on the Pacific coastline, hit 145 mph before failing. The observers estimated that the wind gusts increased to up to 175 mph at the height of the storm. The NWS station in Corvallis (in the Willamette Valley) measured a gust of 110 knots (127 mph) before the site began to be blown apart. The observers were forced to abandon the station, something that has never before or since occurred anywhere in the West as a result of a wind event.



The log sheet from the Corvallis, Oregon weather bureau site where the station was forced to be abandoned at 4:15 p.m. (PST) on October 12th following wind gusts of 110 knots (127 mph). USWB.

Below is a map of the maximum observed wind gusts observed from northern California to Canada during the storm.



A map produced by storm historian Wolf Read illustrating the top observed wind gusts at various locations from northern California to Washington. Graphic from Wolf Read’s definitive work on the Columbus Day Storm The Big Blow of Columbus Day 1962.

The storm reached its maximum intensity when it was located about 50-100 miles off the northern Oregon coast. Astoria, Oregon (at the moth of the Columbia River) recorded the lowest measured surface barometric pressure with a reading of 28.61” (969 mb) at 7 p.m. on October 12th. The pressure in the center of the storm was estimated to have fallen as low as 28.34” (960 mb) at this time. Although lower pressures than this occurred during the great Storm of December 1995, the winds were considerably stronger in 1962 because of a tighter pressure gradient and faster intensification of the 1962 storm compared to that of 1995. In fact, no storm has ever in modern history produced winds so strong in the entire Willamette Valley and Portland (where a gust to 116 mph was measured on the Morrison Street Bridge).



Barometric trace for Astoria, Oregon on October 12, 1962. At the time, the reading of 28.61” was the 2nd lowest such reading ever measured at Astoria after a 28.45” reading set during the ‘Storm King’ of January 1880. Graphic by Wolf Read.

Damage from the storm was experienced as far south as the San Francisco Bay Area where torrential rains were the most notable aspect although wind gusts to 63 mph were reported at the airport. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, 20 miles south of San Francisco, Ben Lomond recorded 14.10” in one 24-hour period on October 12-13. This remains the greatest 24-hour rainfall during October in California history. Oakland picked up 4.52” in one 24-hour period (an October record) and the water works in the village of Orinda (just over the hill from Oakland) received an astonishing 18.41” over the two-day period of storm rainfall (a once in 6500 year period of return rainfall according to the California Dept. of Water Resources). Landslides in the Oakland Hills destroyed numerous structures and killed 2 children. Forbestown, in northern California near the Feather River, had the greatest 3-day precipitation total of any location in the Pacific Northwest with 25.78”.



The Big Blow topples the Campbell Hall Tower on the campus of Western Oregon State College in Monmouth near Salem where 90 mph wind gusts were measured. Photo by Wes Luchau.

Altogether, at least 46 deaths were attributed to the storm in Oregon and Washington and a further 2 to 8 in California. Damage was estimated to total $235 million ($1.7 billion in 2012 dollars) and some 53,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. It was the third deadliest weather-related disaster in Washington-Oregon history (after the Heppner, Oregon flash flood of 1903 which killed 247 and the Cascade avalanche near Wellington, Washington in 1910 that killed 96). The second deadliest storm of the ‘Columbus Day’ nature was that which occurred on October 21, 1934 when 22 lives were lost in Washington (mostly) and Oregon.

Conclusion

In terms of impact on communities in the Pacific Northwest no other storm has ever produced as much devastation as the Columbus Day storm of 1962.

REFERENCES:

Read, Wolf The Big Blow of Columbus Day 1962 Online perspective. See for the article.

Lynott R.E., and Cramer O.P., ‘Detailed Analysis of the Columbus Day Windstorm in Oregon and Washington’ Monthly Weather Review February 1966 pp. 105-117

Decker F.W. and Cramer O.P.,‘The Columbus Day ‘Big Blow’ in Oregon’ Weatherwise magazine December 1962 pp. 238-245.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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6. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
8:37 PM GMT on October 19, 2012
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
5. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
12:30 AM GMT on October 16, 2012
Yes, I agree that a billion dollars isn't what it used to be! I would love to see an analysis of the 'cost' of older extreme weather events re-calculated to take inflation into effect. Of course, even doing that would still not take into account how so many more people and infrastructures are now susceptible to weather disasters. It is probably next to impossible to recalculate what such-or-such a storm that once occurred might cost now if a repeat of such happened.

Quoting TomballTXPride:

You couldn't of said that better. Billion dollar disasters have been so common lately in the past 50 years. Population increases and the cost of living & inflation nowadays is the reason behind this. Most certainly.
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 267 Comments: 249
3. BriarCraft
6:28 PM GMT on October 14, 2012
I did a blog about this historic storm, too. I was 10 at the time, lived near West Linn south of Portland, and was on a class field trip to the Seattle World's Fair that day. Those memories still are vivid in my mind.

Here's a 6:38 video from a Portland's KGW TV with a lot of good information about the Columbus Day Storm.


Member Since: June 21, 2004 Posts: 71 Comments: 3622
2. Neapolitan
2:17 PM GMT on October 13, 2012
What an incredible storm. And were it to happen again--which it almost certainly will--damage will doubtless be in the many billions of dollars. Those wind speeds are incredible. I've been in tropical cyclones with 100 mph plus gusts, and even in a few chinook events that saw winds of nearly that speed. But there's obviously a huge difference between 100 mph and, say, 160 mph. (I would imagine some of the terrain-enhacned gusts on Mount St. Helens and other peaks in the area may have been close to 200 mph. Wow.)

1880's Storm King seems to get most of the press, but the Columbus Day storm was indeed historical. Thanks for the interesting write-up...
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13306
1. GlennPaw
6:18 AM GMT on October 13, 2012
Your entry helped me relive that day. I was 6 at the time when Dad and I went into downtown Portland to get Mom from work. We were on that rocking and swaying Morrison bridge. Early enough to still be daylight out watching the world spinning and flying by. They were right about not a tree standing after that day.
At six years old I saw circles of rainbow colors on the street, thought it was fury marks. Later in life only to realize it was motor oil on water on blacktop.
Member Since: January 7, 2011 Posts: 0 Comments: 8

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.