The Meteorology of Little House on the Prairie

If you read The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel about narrowly avoiding starving to death during a ferocious winter on the South Dakota prairie, then you'll remember how the trains stopped running because of the snowfall. In fact, that's a big part of why Laura and her family were so hungry — their harvest had been lean and the train carried the supplies they were dependent upon.

I'd never had a real clear idea of what "the train can't get through" really meant, not being totally clear on how to adjust snow-clearing expectations from today back to the 1880s. But, as it turns out, when the train company said they couldn't get the trains through, they were not messing around. The above image, from the Minnesota Historical Society, shows you the kind of snowfall we're talking about. That picture was taken in southern Minnesota, during the same winter — 1880-1881 — that nearly killed Laura Ingalls Wilder. Please note the dude standing on top of the train. He really gives you the overwhelming sense of scale.

Last year, Barbara Mayes-Boustead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, actually looked at the records we have for temperatures and snowfall from that winter, most of which come from military forts and major cities miles away from the small town of DeSmet, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived. Mayes-Boustead found that the story in the book matches up reasonably accurately with actual data.

She's got a series of short audio commentaries on the winter of 1880-1881 and how it plays out in the Little House books, including a really fascinating one about the climate patterns and probably created those many months of blizzards. By looking at weather patterns from the time and at the climate systems we associate with weather like that today, Mayes-Boustead says that we can probably blame the Long Winter on a combination of a strong negative North Atlantic Oscillation — a pattern in the jet stream that sucks icy air from the Arctic down into the Midwestern US — and an El Nino year — which tends to make that same region of the county wetter than usual.

Listen to all of Barbara Mayes-Boustead's recorded presentations


  1. For some odd reason this information makes Mark Twain’s story “Cannibalism In The Cars” even funnier to me.

    Also I remember riding trains in Britain that would be stopped by leaves on the tracks. American trains look at British trains and laugh. 

    1. While U.S. freight trains are certainly much bigger than their British counterparts (or those of anywhere else in the world), thanks to heavier U.S. rails being able to bear greater loads, they’re no less vulnerable to stuff like wet leaves on the track. While this would seem to be a ridiculous thing to stop a train for, you might think differently if you were a locomotive. :) Basically, it makes the track totally slippery, and a locomotive can’t get any traction to pull anything. It’s the rail equivalent of spilling oil all over a highway.

      Wikipedia’s article “Slippery rail” has more information on the problem, and how it affects rail service in the U.S. as well.

  2. To get a modern glimpse on what it’s like to deal with that much snow, this might be a way to do it:

    Granted no one is at risk of starving and heavy snowfall in the mountains isn’t exactly a rare thing, but it’s probably the best we’re gonna get in this day and age.

      1. To me, that’s a drift, not actual snowfall. Around the 1 min mark, off to the right, you can see bare fields.

        1. But if the drift is drifting onto the train tracks and you don’t have modern snowblowing equipment, it’s still a problem, right?

  3. I would just point out that while the snowfall was obviously spectacularly deep, it was probably not as deep as it appears to be in that photo. The tracks in the photo have been cleared, so although it looks like the depth of the snow is up to the top of the train, what we’re really seeing is high snowbanks on either side of the track made up of the snow that was cleared from the tracks. The actual depth elsewhere was probably about half that.

    1. Or possibly even less, because snow in the northern plains tends to drift and pile up. 

      Where I live, a teensy little 6 inch snowfall can drift up to about 3 feet at a certain place on the road where the winds tunnel through a valley and converge right at the roadway.

      1. You can see strata in the snow in the lower part of the cut. They look like the cross-section you get in snow banks from variations in the characteristics of the snow fall. Whereas above that, the snow is a homogenous, churned mass. I’d say the guess of about halfway up the bank is pretty consistent with that.

    2.  This, exactly.  Wilder says in her book that the men hiked however many miles up the tracks to dig out the train, which they did, tossing the show up into banks on either side; they got it dug out by sunset.  The railroad shook eveyrone’s hand and planned to bring the train into town in the morning.  But it snowed overnight and buried the train, not only to the height it’d been buried before, but snow filled in up to the top of the man-made banks on either side.  So the men trekked out and did it again.  And again.  Building the banks higher each time, because apparently they were incapable of learning from experience.  And eventually the railroad said, “Sorry, sucks to live in your town,” and stopped trying until spring.

      But yes, it’s not that they got thirty feet of snowfall, but rather that 1) they didn’t completely remove the snow, well clear of the tracks, while they were digging, and 2) they got multiple snowfalls in succession, for which they’d built up a nice support system perfect to capture and hold said snowfall in a ridiculously high mound.


      1.  Perhaps they didn’t have the manpower/motivation/energy to move the snow somewhere else, considering they were using shovels

  4. By the 20th century, they had amazing railroad snowblowers that could clear that much snow without blinking an eye. But back then, not so much.

  5. Wasn’t there one particularly bad winter in the 1800’s that was caused by a huge volcanic eruption that created a sort of mini nuclear winter?

    1. Look up Krakatoa, a volcanic island near Java that exploded in 1883. The following winter was severe.

  6. I didn’t realize there was train service on that side of the wall, I suppose in addition to the snow Laura Ingalls had to deal with wildlings too.

  7. I didn’t know about deep snow until I moved to California. Here, in big winters, skiers have used ladders to get up on top of the snow from the cars. I’ve never had to us a ladder but I’ve had to jump. 

    On Route 88 on the Carson Spur there is a section where there’s easily 15 feet of snow in big years. I’m probably being conservative. As I drove past one night I went through an exercise to try and accurately re-create the depth. I was in a Honda Civic (yeah, with chains) and if I put the honda upright, so the rear bumper was on the ground and the front point up, and stood on the to bumper, and raised my hands above my head, I doubt I could have touched the top. I’m over 6 feet tall.

    If you google image sierra snow you’ll see stuff like this. All the more amazing because our snow is dense with a high water-to-volume ratio. In 2010 Kirkwood ski resort had over 700 inches of snow fall. 

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