The “November Witch” refers to strong winds that are known to terrorize the Great Lakes in the autumn months. But what happens when a November storm affects the eastern United States? In November of 1950, a superstorm hit the United States in dramatic fashion. Dr. David Call of the Geography and Meteorology Department researched this storm with record-breaking phenomena through meteorological and geographical literature, as well as newspaper accounts and other stories, for his new book Superstorm 1950.

What is a Superstorm?

A superstorm is a mid-latitude storm that causes record conditions and multiple distinct meteorological hazards over a large area. Superstorms have significant social impacts like loss of life, destruction of property, or other disruptions.

Superstorms, according to Dr. Call, have four distinct criteria:

  • They’re regular low pressures that we see moving across the country and bringing rain and fronts.
  • They affect a really big area, an area at least twice the size of California. For comparison’s sake, this would be the entirety of the Midwest and some nearby states in the Northeast or Great Plains.
  • A superstorm has multiple record setting hazards: crazy winds, incredible snow, intense flooding, etc.
  • They need to have a big disruption, like property damage or loss of life.

 Superstorm 1950

In November of 1950, a storm devastated the eastern United States. Known as “The Great Appalachian Storm of 1950,” there were hurricane-force, hundred-mile winds in Connecticut. It was an unseasonably warm 60 degrees in Buffalo but a drastically cold 10 degrees in Pittsburgh. Snow fell for an entire week in West Virginia resulting in over 50 inches, a record that has still yet to be broken today. In Mississippi, temperatures dramatically crashed from 67 degrees Fahrenheit to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of hours. These dramatic weather conditions affected two-thirds of the country at the same time.

Photo by Walter Stein, Carnegie Library Collection.

By any meteorological measure, this was an exceptional storm.”

Nicknamed the “Storm of the Century,” the records of weather and destruction still hold to this day. Asheville, North Carolina experienced record low temperatures for November at just 1 degree Fahrenheit. Along the New Jersey coast, winds gusting over 100 mph caused a devastating storm surge that destroyed buildings and washed-out roads. With more snow, wind, and cold temperatures than ever before, the Superstorm of 1950 became the worst blizzard to bury Ohio. Only two other storms have passed the 1950 Superstorm’s death toll, both hurricanes.

Why is Superstorm 1950 important?

The impacts of Superstorm 1950 have weaved themselves into our lives. Modeling on forecasting has improved immensely. The Superstorm of 1950 was poorly forecasted leaving millions stranded without knowledge of inclement weather. Research meteorologists, though, used this poor forecast to their advantage.  They repeatedly used the storm as a test case to strengthen and improve their weather forecast models. Today, people know about potential storms and bad weather days before.

Dr. Call’s research into the November 1950 Superstorm went beyond meteorological and into the financial and social impacts of the storm. He stresses that we cannot ignore these impacts when studying storms.

“Vulnerability to weather disasters is increasing, and a similar storm today would likely be the most expensive weather disaster ever in the United States.”

While the United States has become better at managing things like snow removal, other weather factors such as coastal flooding and rising sea levels can be dangerous variables. In 1950, civilians could operate without electricity. Nowadays, as seen in the 2021 Texas power crisis, going days or weeks without electricity in the midst of a storm is deadly.

Available January 15, 2023, Dr. Call’s book Superstorm 1950 is a well-researched account of the November 1950 Superstorm, including how this storm may have affected Ohio State’s powerhouse football team.

For more stories on our forecasting and storm-chasing and information from the Department of Geography and Meteorology, visit our website or blog.