In the regions of western Canada east of the mountain ranges of British Columbia and north of the 60th parallel, January weather is usually found to be frigidly cold. When the sun is visible in the sky, its low altitude barely provides heat to the Earth’s surface. Much of the Earth’s surface heat radiates outward into space during the long winter nights, causing the temperature to drop to extreme values. Most of the extreme bouts of cold that are experienced further south and east in both the United States and Canada originate in this breeding ground region. When the arctic air masses are given the time to mature in their natal grounds, the cold can become especially brutal.
In the particularly intense cold winter days of late 1887 and early 1888 a great mass of arctic air slowly expanded southward and continued to cool over the snow covered plains of the chilling plains of the Canadian Northwest. Air from the Northwest Territories at Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River registered with temperatures of minus 35 °F on January 3. A nudge from the upper level winds pushed this air southeastward. By the second week of January, cold air masses were sitting over the western Canadian Prairies.
Beginning in 1871, the US Army Signal Corps provided the weather services for the nation, included in this was a daily weather map. Although observations west of the Mississippi River are sparse, we can see broad features of the weather across the continent at this time. Most of what we know about this natural disaster is derived from information found on these weather maps that are archived by the NOAA Central Library’s... [continues]
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