Columbus and Central Ohio Weather

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — 45 years ago today, Ohio endured one of its worst blizzards in living memory in a winter torm that became known as the “Great Blizzard of 1978.”

January 1978 was already an unusually harsh month. A series of moderate snowstorms coupled with subfreezing temperatures from January 9-23 built up a record January snow cover of 17 inches in Columbus, following a total snow accumulation of 28 inches.

The worst was yet to come.

The temperature rose to 41 degrees in Columbus late in the evening of Jan. 25 on a soggy day that brought 0.65 of an inch of rain.

Meanwhile, more than 800 miles to the south, low pressure was developing in the Gulf states that would charge northward, developing at an explosive rate, referred to today as a “bomb cyclone.”

Shortly after midnight, a sharp drop in temperature turned rain into a wind-driven snow. Ohioans were jarred awake by powerful winds rattling windows — the beginning of a drastic turnaround from mild winter conditions the day before to a devastating combination of ice, snow, wind and frigid temperatures.

The winter cyclone intensified on its rapid northward trek from Georgia to Ohio, crossing the state in a few hours around 4:00 a.m. along a line from Portsmouth to Cleveland.

The barometric pressure in Columbus tumbled to an all-time record low of 28.46 inches (963.8 millibars) — comparable to a Category 3 hurricane. The lowest recorded air pressure in the state before dawn on Jan. 26, 1978, reached 28.28 inches (957.7 millibars) at Cleveland.

A reflection of the storm intensity was measured by a stranded ore carrier in Lake Erie that recorded sustained winds of 86 mph and a gust of 111 mph (NOAA, National Weather Service, Wilmington). Wind gusts reached 82 mph at Cleveland and 69 mph at Columbus.

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  • Blizzard 5 Marion OHC_383621

(Photos: Ohio History Connection, NWS Wilmington)

Snowfalls around Ohio ranged from 5 to 15 inches, with a report of 19 inches at Novelty, Geauga County. The snow was driven into mountainous drifts of 10 to 20 feet by winds gusts of 50 to 70 mph, accompanied by single-digit temperatures.

Highway travel was nearly at a standstill and rural roads were repeatedly blocked by drifting snow, often after a snow plow came through. The Ohio State Highway Patrol reported drifts in rural areas were as high as 25 feet.

Within hours, Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes had declared a state of emergency and urged all residents to stay home.

Authors Thomas and Jeanne Schmidlin, in Thunder in the Heartland, described the unprecedented circumstances.

Nearly 6,000 motorists were stranded on state roadways. Forty-five Ohio National Guard helicopters flew 2,700 missions across the state, rescuing about 10,000 Ohioans, including people in need of supplies or suffering medical emergencies. U.S. Army helicopters were also part of the rescue missions.

Gov. Rhodes declared afterwards that the blizzard was the “greatest disaster in Ohio history.” The exceptionally fierce winter storm took 51 lives in Ohio, and 70 nationally.

Nearly half of the 51 Ohioans who perished in the storm died in their stranded vehicles. An estimated 175,000 customers around the state were without power for several days, and schools and businesses were shuttered for up to a week following the Great Blizzard of ’78.