I wrote this, as I was interested in the current conditions, day by day, on the trail while the Serum Run was taking place and determining if the actual temperatures did indeed reach -40 or -50 as claimed.
know that a blizzard occurred during the Serum Run of 1925. I wanted to
take a closer look at the exact weather conditions at the time that
this run was taking place.
First off, lets start by giving the exact definition of a blizzard. According to the NWS glossary, a blizzard is defined as:
Blizzard (abbrev. BLZD) - A blizzard means that the following
conditions are expected to prevail for a period of 3 hours or longer:
Sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater; and
Considerable falling and/or blowing snow (i.e., reducing visibility frequently to less than ¼ mile)
Now, in Alaska, it is common to receive harsh conditions during the
winter, but that does not mean the conditions are less hazardous.
Regardless of whether youre used to it or not, bare skin will freeze
if left out to long. For example:
Strong winds, or in fact any wind occurring in the areas of extreme
winter cold, create a definite hazard to personnel exposed for even
brief periods of time. For example, (using a wind chill chart developed
by the U.S. Army) a temperature of a -13°F and an accompanying wind of
15 mph equals conditions that would be experienced with a temperature
of 49 °F and no wind. If the temperature is a -49° F and the winds 10
mph, the resulting equivalent temperature is -81° F.
Another point is the fact the driver himself admitted he could not see
his hands in front of his face. This is commonly referred to as white
out conditions. According to the NWS FAQ, the definition for white out
is as follows:
'White-out' is the term used often to describe any condition during
snowfall that severely restricts visibility. In the Glossary of Weather
and Climate published by the American Meteorological Society, a
whiteout is defined as 'an atmospheric optical phenomenon of the polar
regions in which the observer appears to be engulfed in a uniformly
white glow as a result of a lack of contrast between an overcast sky
and an unbroken snow cover. Neither shadows, horizon, nor clouds are
discernable; sense of depth and orientation is lost; dark objects in
the field of view appear to 'float' at an indeterminable distance.'
The sickness was first found in January of 1925; the serum itself,
pulled in by Balto on the final leg of the journey, was hauled into
stricken Nome on February 2, 1925. I will start the data on the 27th of
January, 1925. On the 27th, the maximum temperature reached -11*F, than
night, the low dropped to -19. The sled teams were gathering along
their relay points, ready to pass the serum onto each other as they
reached the meeting places. The day of the 28th, the temperature
managed to reach -10*F for the high, yet the low was once again -19. On
the 29th, the temperature reached a balmy -2, with a low of -19 again.
On the 30th, the high was -4 with a low of -17. The 31st brought less
extreme conditions, with a high of -1 and a low of -15.
This leads me to believe that a cold front, most likely with a low
attached to it, was approaching the area. The reasoning behind this is
that as a cold front approaches an area, there can be a warm front that
lifts through said area before the actual cold front gets to the area.
Similar incidents occur in the Midwest and the East Coasts during
severe weather outbreaks, a warm front moves through the area. Which
then raises temperatures and humidity, possibly strengthening
thunderstorms, or in the case of Alaska, snow squalls. Unfortunately, I
do not have access to any humidity readings or surface analysis (which
would show fronts on it) to prove that a warm front, or even a cold
front for that matter, definitely passed through. However, the very
next day was February 1st, 1925; and according to the historical data,
the temperature did indeed fall. The high dropped from -1 the previous
day to -5 for the high. The low plummeted however, from -15 to -21.
Likewise, the 2nd brought a high of -6 and a low of -21 again. During
this time is when Baltos driver, Gunnar Kassan, nearly perished from
the cold; I can conclude that an intense low pressure area was riding
along a cold front as it passed over western Alaska.
The winds in this low pressure area probably exceeded 60 miles per hour
in gusts, however; there are no wind observations from Alaska during
this period, and even if there were, chances are the equipment would
have failed at the peak of the storm. It is amazing that Gunnar
survived the blizzard and it is just as amazing that Balto was able to
somehow find his way back to Nome on his own. The very next day, the
3rd of February, brought extremely cold weather to the area, with
daytime highs struggling to reach -10. The nighttime lows were even
worse, with the temperature plummeting to -30. Chances are, had Balto
and the team not of gotten back on the 2nd, they all would have
***The following is an estimation of what could have happened***
Gunnar receives the anti-toxin at his stop; he knows he is the last
leg of the journey. By this time, the clouds are thickening and
lowering, the winds have picked up and it has started snowing lightly.
Gunnar gets on the trail, heading towards Nome, by now it is afternoon
on the 1st and the clouds continue to lower and thicken, the snow
continues falling, slowly picking up in intensity. By nightfall, the
conditions are nearing blizzard force. The snow is falling heavy and
obscuring everything but objects just a few yards in front of him. The
wind is gusting up to 40 or 50 MPH. By morning on the 2nd, most people
have given up hope. How could a sled team, with a dog that was
considered bad as a lead dog, possibly make it back in these
conditions? The winds were easily gusting near 60 by now, with
sustained winds around 40 MPH, or Tropical Storm force. The snow is now
not only falling, but an interesting phenomenon called Blowing and
drifting snow is occurring. The wind is so strong, that snow already
on the ground is being kicked back into the air; and coupled with
falling snow, the visibilities are now down to roughly a foot or two,
if that far.
Travel is now certainly impossible to do visually, and the only other
way it could be done is by a dog with the trail etched into his mind.
Lucky for Gunnar and Nome that Balto had the trail etched into his
mind. He somehow led the team on, in conditions impossible to travel in
even today, all the way to Nome. According to reports, the team was so
exhausted that the dogs could not even bark. They would have faced
certain death had they been out for one more day, as the temperatures
fell that night and did not warm back up for several days. For example,
just a mere 4 days after the serum reached Nome, the daytime
temperature dropped dramatically to -25, with lows around -35. The
temperatures did not recover for another 4 days.
In conclusion, the temperatures, according to unofficial records
provided by the NWS, did not get close to -40 or -50 until AFTER the
serum was in Nome. The accounts that the actual air temperature reached
that, even for the lows, are proven false by the data obtained from the
NWS in Fairbanks (the actual data was for Nome and surrounding areas
however). Now, if you add in the wind-chill factor, according to a
wind-chill calculator provided by the NWS, a temperature of -10 with
wind of 50 MPH added in felt more like -45 to the human skin. A
temperature of -20 with winds of 50 MPH felt like -60. Interesting side
note, in those conditions any exposed skin becomes frostbitten within 5
to 10 minutes, yet these people were on the trail for between several
hours up to a day and ½. If you think that is bad, imagine if you got
yourself wet. I realize I did not cover Togo, whose team most likely
encountered freezing sea spray (meaning that the sea spray freezes
instantly on contact); however it took several hours to compile and
write this out, so I did not have time to include everyone else.
Case Study Team:
Climate Data From:
Wind Chill Chart:
(interesting side note, after writing this article, I found a weather station, its on the climate link, called 'Kaltag', I just thought that was interesting...)