WunderBlog Archive » Weather Extremes

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

The Phenomenal May Snowstorm of May 1-3, 2013

By: Christopher C. Burt, 8:46 AM GMT on May 04, 2013

The Phenomenal May Snowstorm of May 1-3, 2013

Big May snowstorms are not unusual for the Rocky Mountains and northwestern Plains, but they are unusual for the Midwest and unprecedented in the case of the event that has occurred over the past 3 days (May 1-3) from Arkansas to Minnesota. Here is a summary of the snow and cold that this region has just endured.



NWS snow reports for the 72 hours ending 7 a.m. CST on May 3rd illustrate the portions of the country affected by the recent snow event. An interactive version of this map can be found here.

The storm was a result of a deep and sharp upper level trough that penetrated the midsection of the nation and then formed into a cut-off low centered over the lower Mississippi Valley.



Although there have been many May snowstorms in the Midwest since official records have been kept, it is unlikely that there was ever one that dumped so much snow over so wide an area as this one (named ‘Achilles’ by The Weather Channel). There were so many May snowfall records, for both depth and deepest-so-late-in-season that it is impossible to list them all. It would appear that all-time May state snowfall records (for greatest 1, 2, or 3 day totals) were set in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The peak storm total amounts for the 3-day period of May 1-3 by state are the following.

List of potential new state May monthly 3-day snowstorm records

ARKANSAS: 3.0” at Maysville. First measurable snowfall on record for May in the state.

MISSOURI: 6.0” at Warrensburg 7S. Former record 4.5” at Bethany on May 1-3, 1907.

IOWA: 13.0” at Osage. Former record 10.0” at Le Mars on May 28, 1947 (that is amazing—May 28th!).

MINNESOTA: 18.0” at Blooming Prairie. Former record 15.1” at Indus on May 1-3, 1954.

WISCONSIN: 21.3” at Mellen 2NW. Former record 15.4” at Bayfield on May 1-2, 1984. Ashland picked up 16.2” May 1-2, just a day after they recorded 82°F on April 30th.



48-hour snowfall map ending 7:00 a.m. May 3 illustrating where the storm’s heaviest snow accumulations occurred in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The top amount seems to be 21.3” at Mellen in northwestern Wisconsin. Map from NWS-Minneapolis.


Other state maximum snow totals for the storm April 30-May 3 (but not state records) include:


WYOMING: 22.3” at Warren AFB 20.6 WSW

COLORADO: 28.2” at Buckhorn Mountain 1 E

SOUTH DAKOTA: 6.2” at Sioux Rapids 4 E

NEBRASKA: 8.5” at Dalton 0.8 SE

KANSAS: 5.3” at Traer 2.5 NNW

OKLAHOMA: 1.5” at West Siloam Springs 6 W

MICHIGAN: 13.0” at Bessemer 1 E



Snow accumulations in Iowa where up to 13” was measured at Osage, the greatest May snowstorm in the state’s history. Map from NWS-Des Moines.

Some notable city snowfall records

Probably the most amazing snowfall statistic so far as any single city is concerned was the 14.3” of snow that fell at Rochester, Minnesota on May 2-3. Of this 14.0” fell on May 2nd making this the 4th greatest calendar day snowfall in the city’s history (for any month!). The previous record calendar day snowfall for Rochester was just 1.4” on May 5, 1944. In fact, the greatest TOTAL May monthly snowfall previous to this storm had been just 2.0” also in 1944. The heavy wet snow caused the roofs of several structures to collapse including that of a local automobile dealership. As the local newspaper, The Rochester Post-Bulletin put it in their lead story for May 3rd, “When the National Weather Service posts records for events such as the May 2 snowstorm, maybe it needs a new category—BEYOND BELIEF!”.



Perhaps I flew north a bit to early this year! A Canadian goose remains seated patiently on her eggs (for the past two weeks according to local reports) and buried to her neck in snow. Photo from the Rochester Post-Bulletin (photographer not identified).



Another image from the Rochester, Minnesota area where 14.3” of snow accumulated, crushing the city’s previous biggest May snow of 1.4”. In fact, the 14.3” was three times what ALL the previous May snowstorms added together would have come to. Photo from the Rochester Post-Bulletin (photographer not identified).

Eau Claire, Wisconsin picked up 9.3” smashing their previous May record snowfall of 2.0” on May 12, 1946. The figure also crushed Eau Claire’s previous May monthly total of 3.3” in May 2001.

Des Moines, Iowa saw 6.9” on May 2-3, blowing away their previous greatest May snowfall of record of 1.3” on May 2-3, 1907.

Omaha, Nebraska picked up 3.1” of snow on May 1-2, surpassing their previous May record 24-hour snowstorm of 2.0” set on May 9, 1945. However, 1.9” fell on May 1 and 1.2” on May 2nd, so the calendar day record of 2.0” in 1945 still stands in that regard. Lincoln had a 2.7” total May 1-2, just short of the May record of 3.0” set on May 3, 1967.

Kansas City, Missouri measured 0.5” at the official airport site on May 2nd. This was only the 2nd time Kansas City has recorded measurable snowfall in May, the one other occasion being May 3, 1907 when 1.7” was measured. Amazingly the temperature reached 76°F on May 1st. On Friday May 3rd their high temperature was 39°F, the coldest maximum daily high on record for the month of May.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (snowfall records since 1892) picked up 1.5” on May 1st. This was their first measurable May snowfall since 1976 and 2nd greatest May snowfall on record behind 2.0” recorded on May 13, 1943.

Springfield, Missouri reported 1.4” on May 2-3. Their greatest May snowfall on record. Previous record being 0.6” on May 2, 1929. Snowfall records in Springfield began in 1888.

Tulsa, Oklahoma had a trace of snow mixed with rain on May 2nd. This was the latest observation of snow ever recorded, April 18, 1953 being the previous such.

Ten different sites in Arkansas reported measurable snow accumulations. Prior to this storm no measurable snowfall had ever been recorded in the state during the month of May.

Record cold temperatures as well

Many daily cold records (for both minima and maxima) have been observed since the onset of the storm on April 30th. Laramie, Wyoming tied there all-time May low temperature of 7°F on May 2nd (last set on May 3, 1907). Cheyenne bottomed out at 9°F the same day, just 1°F short of their monthly record of 8°F also set on May 3, 1907. Temperature records date back to 1875 in Cheyenne. Denver, Colorado tied their all-time monthly low with 19° on May 2 (it was 80° on April 30th), last set (again) on May 3, 1907. Midland, Texas broke their May low with 32°F on May 3rd (old record 34° on two previous occasions). Amazingly, Midland had just set a daily record high of 97° on April 30th. This also smashed the city’s latest freezing temperature on record which last occurred on April 20, 1933 with a 27°F reading. Amarillo also saw a crazy drop of temperature from a record 97° on April 30th to a record low of 28°F on May 2nd. They even had a trace of snow fall in the early hours of May 1st, just 10 hours after hitting 97°! Shreveport, Louisiana recorded its lowest May temperature on record on May 4th with a 39°F reading (old record 42°F on two previous occasions; May 1, 1903 and May 12, 1950. Temperature records go back to 1874 in Shreveport. Vicksburg, Mississippi broke their all-time May low with 37°F on May 4th (old record 39°F on May 17, 2011). Jackson fell to 36°, breaking the former May record of 38° set on May 19, 2003. The temperature fell to 32° in Oxford, Mississippi on May 4th also an all-time May record. The coldest temperature ever measured anywhere in the state during the month of May is 30° at Tupelo in 1976, so there is a chance this record will be broken somewhere in Mississippi when all the COOP reports come in. Memphis, Tennessee fell to 36° (also on May 4th) which was also a May record (old record 38° on May 7, 1944). Houston, Texas recorded a new May monthly cold temperature of 42° on May 4th (previous record was 44° on May 4, 1978. Other cities in Texas recording their all-time May cold records on May 4th include Austin with 37°; Waco with 34°; San Antonio with 42°; and College Station with 42°.



Historical perspective of the May 1-3, 2013 snow event

As I mentioned earlier heavy May snowfalls are not rare in the Rocky Mountain States or Black Hills of South Dakota. The Northeast and Appalachian Mountains have also seen their share of remarkable May snowfalls. However, for the Mississippi River Valley this storm was truly exceptional. The only more remarkable May snowstorm to affect this region was the event of May 27-29, 1947. That storm spread a wide swath of heavy snow from Wyoming to Michigan but snow didn’t accumulation south of Iowa and Nebraska and its maximum point accumulations (even the areas that overlapped with the May 1-3 event) did not match those of the recent storm. However, it occurred at the end of May, not the beginning. So, in that regard, it can still be considered the most anomalous snowstorm the Midwest has experienced in modern records.



Snowfall map for the storm of May 27-29, 1947. This remains, in my opinion, the most anomalous May snow event in Midwest history due to its occurrence so late in the month. Map from NWS-La Crosse report.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian




Extreme Weather Snow cold Achilles

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

Thanks Doc!
That was a remarkable storm, an extreme event for the record books. With all that cold and snow, many would wish to point to it as "proof" that there's no global warming. However, the US lower 48 states land area is only 1.79% of the total global area, so looking at just this Mid-Western storm ignores what's happening elsewhere. For example, this account only briefly mentions the record heat in Texas before the front moved thru.

This time of the year the weather is the result of the large temperature differences between the tropics and the poles, as the Arctic sea-ice cover is only slightly less than the maximum area in March, while at the Equator, the solar energy at the TOA was a maximum. The resulting flows between the tropics and the poles appear as warm air going northwards and cold air returning with the cold air staying near the surface. We know that the energy flows result from the tropics exhibiting a "surplus" of energy input, while the polar regions are in "deficit", to use an analogy which those with financial concerns would understand. The energy accounts must balance and the result is a "subsidy" between the tropics and the poles, energy transferred as both sensible and latent energy in the atmosphere and thermal energy in ocean currents, particularly the Thermohaline Circulation (THC) in the sub-polar North Atlantic.

Global warming will change all those flows, with one result likely to be increased movements of warm air masses with more moisture moved toward the polar regions in Spring. The contrast between the northward moving warm masses and the return cold masses should be expected to increase, with increased storm intensity and precipitation being a consequence. From this point of view, this storm is entirely consistently with what would be expected on a warming Earth.

Perhaps worse is what might happen if the THC flow is weakened or shuts down. Should that occur, the lost THC "subsidy" would of necessity be shifted onto the atmospheric flows, which would thus strengthen. One might expect that the storms in late Winter and Spring would become even stronger, as the tropic to pole flows increased. Thus, I suggest that we are only just beginning to experience real climate change, with this storm being one such example of our future in the US...
Quoting EricGreen:
That was a remarkable storm, an extreme event for the record books. With all that cold and snow, many would wish to point to it as "proof" that there's no global warming. However, the US lower 48 states land area is only 1.79% of the total global area, so looking at just this Mid-Western storm ignores what's happening elsewhere. For example, this account only briefly mentions the record heat in Texas before the front moved thru.

This time of the year the weather is the result of the large temperature differences between the tropics and the poles, as the Arctic sea-ice cover is only slightly less than the maximum area in March, while at the Equator, the solar energy at the TOA was a maximum. The resulting flows between the tropics and the poles appear as warm air going northwards and cold air returning with the cold air staying near the surface. We know that the energy flows result from the tropics exhibiting a "surplus" of energy input, while the polar regions are in "deficit", to use an analogy which those with financial concerns would understand. The energy accounts must balance and the result is a "subsidy" between the tropics and the poles, energy transferred as both sensible and latent energy in the atmosphere and thermal energy in ocean currents, particularly the Thermohaline Circulation (THC) in the sub-polar North Atlantic.

Global warming will change all those flows, with one result likely to be increased movements of warm air masses with more moisture moved toward the polar regions in Spring. The contrast between the northward moving warm masses and the return cold masses should be expected to increase, with increased storm intensity and precipitation being a consequence. From this point of view, this storm is entirely consistently with what would be expected on a warming Earth.

Perhaps worse is what might happen if the THC flow is weakened or shuts down. Should that occur, the lost THC "subsidy" would of necessity be shifted onto the atmospheric flows, which would thus strengthen. One might expect that the storms in late Winter and Spring would become even stronger, as the tropic to pole flows increased. Thus, I suggest that we are only just beginning to experience real climate change, with this storm being one such example of our future in the US...


I agree with your analysis Eric. The wild swings of temperature and precipitation seem to be on the increase. Another recent example: Quillayute, Washington recorded 31° on May 1st (just 2° from their all-time May monthly low temp on record--29° on May 12, 1977 and also on May 1, 2011) and today (May 5th) hit 88° just 3° from their all-time May monthly high of 92° set on May 7, 1987). Similar to the Texas craziness. These are just minor examples and only from the U.S., but more such extremes are being seen from around the world as well. It would be great if some of our WU international friends could chime in with some examples of this outside the U.S.
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.