Columbus Day Storm

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"Nature Guide Journal"

12 October 2002

Meteorological history was made forty years ago today.

October 12th, 1962: The Columbus Day Storm roared through the Pacific Northwest, killing 48 people and causing damage worth almost 6 billion dollars at today's rate.

It was one heck of a wind.

In the broadest sense, winds are caused by differences in atmospheric pressure.  Sun-warmed air (especially near the equator and over land) warms and rises; cooler air moves in to replace it.  Wind is the atmosphere leveling out.

Add the effects of the planet's spin, friction with the surface and with other winds, and smaller-area differences in heating and cooling, and the result is an interactive, three-dimensional complex of air movement.

Applying the Beaufort scale, the standardized scale of wind force, a "storm" has winds of 64-73 miles per hour.  ("Strong gales" and "whole gales," with wind speeds of 47-54 mph and 55-63 mph, would probably be considered "stormy" by most people.)

A cyclone is a storm that rotates around a calmer eye.  Cyclones rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern hemisphere.  Large scale cyclones with winds over 73 mph are classified as either hurricanes or typhoons:  hurricanes arise over the Atlantic Ocean; typhoons arise over the Pacific Ocean.

During the Columbus Day Storm, many weather stations in Oregon reported wind gusts over 100 mph.  Although the official top wind speed in North Bend was 81 mph, Newport clocked gusts up to 138 mph before the equipment failed.

Our region often receives topically-spawned storms.  What made this cyclone so severe?

Typhoon Frieda developed in the tropical western Pacific about the third of October of that year.  The storm weakened a bit as it moved east and north over cooler waters, then continued traveling east toward central California.  According to a summary of government reports in The Oregonian (9 October 2002), Typhoon Frieda veered north around a very cold air mass that was moving south from the Gulf of Alaska.  Frieda gained momentum as it was pulled around the cold air, peaking in speed as it slammed into the coast.

When Typhoon Frieda made landfall at Cape Blanco, it had sustained winds of 150 mph and was producing gusts up to 179 mph.

I lived in the Willamette Valley during the 1960s; during the Columbus Day Storm we lived not far from the Air Force Base, Camp Adair, north of Corvallis (where wind gusts reached 127 mph).

I remember a shift of wind direction after the calm eye passed over, likely exacerbating the damage.  To lessen the strain on the house, my folks opened the windows on the lee side—first on the north, then on the south.

We watched huge oak limbs traveling parallel to the ground as the house shook and rumbled, but remained unscathed.  I later saw sheets of metal from a neighbor's new livestock barn dispersed over the countryside, caught in distant fences.

Many Oregonians were without electrical power; in some areas the power was out for weeks.  Neighbors helped one another, downed trees were cut up, buildings repaired.  And people swapped stories for years.

Not surprisingly, the National Weather Service (NWS, NOAA) considers the Columbus Day Storm "the benchmark of all Pacific Coast windstorms, against which all others are compared."  (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/Portland/columbusday.html)

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Visit our pages on related topics:  

7 February 2002 storm

thunderstorms

regional climate

climate effects

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For more information, visit the NOAA website on the Columbus Day Storm.

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