The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Christmas-week winter storm and Arctic blast for the ages, by the numbers

A winter storm rolls through western New York Sunday. (Malik Rainey for The Washington Post)
6 min

An extraordinary bout of wintry weather entangled much of the United States over Christmas week. Historic cold and a huge footprint of strong winds and fierce blizzard conditions affected hundreds of millions of Americans during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

Nowhere was the weather as destructive as it was in Buffalo. There, nearly two full days of severe blizzard conditions dropped visibility to zero and forced snow into massive drifts, shuttering the snow-hardened city and leaving hundreds stranded.

“Worst blizzard I have ever covered,” wrote veteran storm chaser Reed Timmer.

Why this blizzard could be the worst in Buffalo's history

While the astounding and even unprecedented facets of the massive storm will be examined for a long time, key raw numbers can help convey its power.

200 million people under alert — Almost two-thirds of the U.S. population was under either a wind chill warning or wind chill advisory between Wednesday and Saturday. Including the winter storm warnings in effect at the same time, well over two-thirds of the population was under weather alerts.

1.5 million customers without power — An unusually large number of customers for a winter storm were without power at peak. Large portions of the Mid-South and the Carolinas dealt with managed power cuts to prevent grid failure. The Tennessee Valley Authority was among electric providers that instituted rolling blackouts. The Tennessee Titans football game was even postponed by an hour on Christmas Eve.

16,000-plus flights canceled — More than 16,000 flights were canceled from Thursday through Monday morning, a period encompassing of the year’s most hectic travel days. Several airports were shut at times, including Buffalo Niagara, which closed down Friday and is not scheduled to reopen until 11 a.m. Tuesday.

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600-plus motorists stranded — Erie County, home of Buffalo, reported that about 500 motorists were stranded Friday night and Saturday morning. Conditions were so bad that many first responders also required rescue.

On Wednesday, another incident stranded more than 100 motorists near Rapid City in southwest South Dakota. And those were just some of the larger disruptions. Multiple interstates and highways, from the Plains to the Midwest and the Northeast, were closed at times during the storm.

26 Buffalo-area deaths — At least 26 people have died in the Buffalo area, officials said, making this one of the city’s deadliest modern-day weather events since a 1977 blizzard that killed 29. The toll could still rise. Additional fatalities have been reported in 16 states from the wintry weather.

10 states under blizzard warnings — Nearly a dozen states saw blizzard warnings issued from the storm, including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and New York.

Dozens of records — Record low temperatures and record low maximums entered the northern Plains early in Christmas week and spread southeastward, ultimately leaving few areas untouched.

Casper, Wyo., saw its lowest temperature in recorded history on Thursday morning at minus-42 degrees. On Christmas Eve, much of the East Coast between New York and Florida saw records fall. Even most of Florida, where sleet came down in a few locations, spent Christmas Day in the 40s, with numerous records set. In Miami, a high of 50 was the lowest on record for the date.

2,235 minutes of blizzard conditions — That’s 37.25 hours of nonstop blizzard conditions in Buffalo. Blizzard conditions are defined as a concurrence of wind gusting at or above 35 mph, blowing/falling snow, and visibility at or below 0.25 miles. For many hours, winds gusted over 60 mph as temperatures plummeted into the single digits. That smashed the previous record for the city: 960 minutes in 1985.

71 mph peak gust — As the blizzard got going Friday morning, Buffalo clocked a top wind gust of 71 mph with heavy snow falling. Another gust of 70 mph was recorded during the afternoon. Numerous gusts above 60 mph continued into the night. Visibility was as low as zero miles at times.

Wind gusts of near or above 50 mph were recorded all over the place, including in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Winds in Boston gusted to 60 mph and in Providence to 64 mph.

Here are some top gusts by state:

  • Mount Washington, N.H. — 151 mph
  • Elk Mountain, Wyo. — 83 mph
  • Lackawanna, N.Y. — 79 mph
  • Frenchville, Maine — 74 mph
  • Fairview Lanes, Ohio — 72 mph
  • Yarmouth, Mass. — 72 mph
  • Rolla, N.D. — 71 mph
  • Copper Harbor, Mich. — 71 mph
  • Barton, Md. — 69 mph
  • Bristol, R.I. — 69 mph
  • Burlington, Vt. — 64 mph
  • New Haven, Conn. — 64 mph

43 inches of snow — The total amount in Buffalo. Winds blew some of it into drifts of 10 feet or more. The three-day storm snowfall was the second-largest in the city’s modern history.

Some other top-end snowfall totals include:

  • Snyder, N.Y. — 56.5 inches
  • Baraga, Mich. — 42.8 inches
  • Watertown, N.Y. — 34.2 inches
  • Reliance, Wyo. — 22 inches
  • Grand Rapids, Mich. — 19.3 inches
  • Ashland, Wis. — 15.6 inches
  • Eldora, Colo. — 13 inches
  • Tofte, Minn. — 12 inches
  • Edgartown, Mass. — 9 inches (from rare ocean-effect snow on Martha’s Vineyard)

75-degree swing — In Denver, the temperature plummeted from 51 degrees on Wednesday to minus-24 on Thursday — one of the biggest swings on record. A similar drop was observed at Wind River in Wyoming, where it went from 33 to minus-38 in 24 hours.

Record and near-record 24-hour temperature drops progressed eastward with the front, reaching up to 50 degrees in the Ohio Valley and the Mid-South, then to around 40 to 45 degrees on the East Coast. A 59-degree temperature difference — from minus-4 to 55 degrees — between Pittsburgh and Boston on Thursday afternoon was the largest on record between the two cities.

Minus-75 degrees wind chill — The coldest known wind chill in the period occurred in Elk Park, Mont., before dawn Thursday. A temperature of minus-49 and a wind speed of 9 mph produced the reading.

In addition to Montana, locations in Wyoming, both Dakotas and Nebraska saw wind chills dip to at least minus-55. Denver’s minus-42 wind chill was its second-lowest on record.

135-degree-temperature difference — On Thursday, a massive temperature difference occurred between the Lower 48 states’ warmest and coldest locations. Elk Park’s minus-50 tied for the second-lowest temperature in the Lower 48 since 2011. On the same day near Florida City, Fla., it was a balmy 85.

963 millibar pressure — The winter storm’s central pressure dropped over 31 millibars in 24 hours as it wrapped up in the Great Lakes before bottoming out at 963 millibars — which is comparable to a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. The pressure exceeded the criteria for the storm to be considered a “bomb cyclone,” the most intense breed of mid-latitude storm.