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The Pacific Northwest’s Greatest Storm: The ‘Storm King’ of January 1880

By: Christopher C. Burt, 12:20 AM GMT on January 20, 2012

The Pacific Northwest’s Greatest Storm: The ‘Storm King’ of January 1880

This past week brought the low elevations of western Washington its most significant snowstorm since December 2008 and for some locations since 1985. Seattle Airport (Sea-Tac) picked up 6.8” in 24 hours on December 18th and a storm total of 9.3” between December 15-18. Olympia, Washington, the state capital, received 11.0” on the 18th and a storm total of 14.2” Dec. 15-18th. However, the WSO Seattle Downtown site got just 3.5” on the 18th and a storm total of 5.5”.

A stunning photograph of the recent snowstorm in progress at Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Jack Moskovita submitted to the wunderground.com image collection.

As is always the case in Puget Bay region snowstorms, slight differences of elevation can play a huge role in snow accumulations, the difference of 500 feet sometimes resulting in a snow accumulation difference of 1” or 10”. Although snow is relatively rare at sea level locations in the region, incredible accumulations have occurred historically. The greatest snowstorm, and perhaps overall worst storm in SW Washington and NW Oregon history, was that dubbed the ‘Storm King’ event of January 9, 1880.

Details About the ‘Storm King’

Little data is available for the so-called ‘Storm King’ of January 1880, but it appears the storm center came ashore just south of Astoria, Oregon, on January 9th when a barometric pressure of 28.45” was registered in the town. Portland bottomed out at 28.56”, and for both locations these remain the lowest barometric-pressure readings on record. A ship, the S.S. Oregon near the mouth of the Umpqua River (where the town of Reedsport, Oregon, is today), reported a pressure of 955 mb/28.20” (as did another vessel, the Victoria, 45-50 miles NW of the Oregon A pressure of 955 mb is the equivalent strength of a major Category 3 hurricane, and the lowest pressure ever measured anywhere along the West Coast of the United States. In all probability, the actual lowest pressure of the storm was lower than those actually measured.

Winds gusted over 70 mph in Portland, causing extensive damage and several deaths. Along the coast, wind gusts probably exceeded 100 mph. Enormous damage was done to the forests of both Oregon and Washington. Just outside of Portland, 500 to 600 trees were blown down over the railroad tracks between Beaverton and Hillsboro, a distance of just 10 miles. In the Puget Sound region of Washington, record snowfalls that collapsed buildings were reported.

Snowfall associated with the ‘Storm King’

It is very unusual that a cyclone of this nature would result in heavy snowfalls at low-level locations in the Pacific Northwest. Usually, these types of intense low-pressure systems, moving from the southwest to northeast, would bring mild maritime temperatures with them and snow would fall only at high elevations. We must assume that a very cold air mass must have been located over southern British Columbia and Alberta and that, with the storm passing inland over Oregon, an occluded front must have allowed cold air to spread south and westward wrapping around the low pressure center.

Following the storm, snow lay four to six feet deep in Seattle, collapsing many structures. In Tacoma, 54” lay on the ground, although it isn’t clear just how much of this snow fell during the ‘Storm King’ event and how much might already have been on the ground. In any case, no such depths have been approached since. It is estimated that the storm itself must have deposited around 20-30” at sea level in Seattle and up to four feet in the Olympia area where several structures also collapsed as a result of snow loads. Also, an astonishing storm snowfall total of 48” was reported from Port Townsend on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula. A place that is normally in the rain shadow of Pacific storms, more evidence that the flow across Washington was east to west.

Ironically, the snow in Seattle began falling on January 5th right after Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry's State of the Territory message that assured the world that "ice and snow are almost unknown in Washington Territory."

Two of the six known photographs of Seattle during or immediately following the great ‘Storm King’ event. It is amazing to see such snow accumulations right at sea level in the harbor (bottom photo). Note the wagon half-buried in snow in the top photo which is a view looking east on Cherry Street. Bottom photo from Museum of History and Industry archives, Seattle, and top photo from Paul Dorpat collection.

In Oregon, 5” of snow was reported “just several miles inland” from the coast at Newport with 18” reported at Siletz, just 10 miles northeast of Newport and at an elevation of just 150 feet. Eugene, Oregon reported 5” of snow, but surprisingly little snow was reported from the city of Portland.

Below is map produced by Wolf Read for the Office of the Washington State Climatologist illustrating some of the highlights of the storm:

KUDOS: Wolf Read of OWSC wrote an extensive and detailed report about the ‘Storm King’ which can be found here. Mr. Read is probably the foremost authority on historic Pacific Northwest storms.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

Extreme Weather

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