“The Years Without Winters” (In Our Area) Series…….1st: 1801-02

December 8th, 2012 at 10:30 pm by under Chad's WLFI Weather Blog

Mild winters, specifically 1801-02, excited much comment about a changing climate in the eastern U.S. at the time.  There are some very early comments from frontier forts & the earliest towns on this winter in Indiana, too.  1801-02 was regarded as the warmest winter since the American Revolution & the warmest until 1827-28.  It was the benchmark winter for climate change discussions among early dignitaries, scientists, pioneers & weather observers from the frontier forts of the Old Northwest, to the early cities of the eastern U.S.

 ”No snow of any consequence” fell at Albany, New York until February 22 & “in January the mercury generally ranged between and 40 to 50 degrees” & was called “a remarkably mild winter”, according to the Annals of Albany by Joel Munsell.  Another journal stated that only 1.25″ of snow fell at Albany December 1-January 31: truly remarkable.  The lowest temperature in the winter of 1803-04 was only 12 degrees at Albany, impressive for any winter in central New York state.  Similarly, in the winter of 1800-01, it was regarded as very mild with “but little snow”.  While, the violets were in bloom & tulips up with green grass at New Haven, Connecticut January 1802.  The high temperature on January 28 at Salem, Massachusetts was 60, for example.

At the White River fort, near present-day Anderson, there is much comment on the 1801-02 in that there was rarely snow, many spring-like days & that the ground was conducive for work.  It was called “exceptionally mild & pleasant…….the mornings were usually cold with clear weather but with a south or southwest wind blowing………….during February & March there was very little snow with more rain, moderate temperature & cloudy sky only for a day at a time.”  In Indiana, David Thomas stated that at Vincennes, the 11″ of snowfall in a freak March 30, 1807 snow storm, was the heaviest in the previous decade when no other snowfall exceeded 5″.  It was also stated at a fort near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that many January days felt like April (“but with little frost at nights”) in January & February 1801-02.

Seymour J. Hathaway stated about this winter in Washington County, Ohio:

“We had an early spring [in 1801].  On the 1st of November we had a snowfall of 3 inches & a hard frost.  After that, the winter was so open that a frost hard enough to bear a man was rarely seen through the winter & spring. ”

He also made references (like Jefferson) to what was though to be a changing climate:

“When the earth is cloaked with forest the sun & wind are measurably shut out from the surface and prevented from carrying off the warm vapors that arise, which diminish the tendency to sudden & violent changes.  While the constant exhalation from the valley furnishes material for snow & rain………………………….keeps the temperature steadier & milder & free from so many vicisstudes.  This has been the case in New England;  they have but about half as good sledding now as they had 50 years ago.”

In the book by Rev. Thomas Smith, published in 1807, there an interesting segment regarding very mild winters (with reference to 1801-02).
“In the year 1714, according to the record of the Swedish mission, the winter was so mild in Philadelphia, that flowers were seen in the woods in February. Since that time we have experienced occasional very mild winters, as 1789-90, 1801-02, and  1805-06, and some very cold seasons, as in 1739-40, 1779-80, 1784-85, 1795-96, and 1804-05.”

In a letter to Philadelphia physician and professor Nathaniel Chapman dated Dec. 11, 1809, nine months after he left the presidency, Jefferson wrote: “The change which has taken place in our climate is one of those facts which all men of years are sensible of and yet none can prove by regular evidence. They can only appeal to each other’s general observation for the fact.

“I remember that when I was a small boy, say sixty years ago, snows were frequent and deep in every winter, to my knee very often, to my waist sometimes, and that they covered the earth long. And I remember while yet young to have heard from very old men that in their youth the winters had been still colder, with deeper and longer snows. In the year 1772, thirty-seven years ago, we had a snow two feet deep in the Champain parts of this state, and three feet in the counties next below the mountains . . .

“While I lived at Washington, I kept a Diary, and by recurring to that I observe that from the winter of 1802-03 to that of 1808-09 inclusive, the average fall of snow of the seven winters was only 14½ inches, and that the ground was covered but sixteen days in each winter on average of the whole. The maximum in any one winter during that period was 21 inches fall, and 34 days on the ground, the minimum was 4½ inches fall and two days on the ground . . .”


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