Record Setting May Snowfall

Glen Conner
State Climatologist Emeritus for Kentucky

Kentucky dresses up in springtime as if it knows that visitors are coming and wants to look its best. The grass is freshly green, and for a while the rate of growth is nearly uniform. Everywhere, pastures appear to be recently mowed. By Kentucky Derby day on the first Saturday in May, trees are fully foliated with fresh shiny leaves. All these signals spark our anticipation of the appearance of dogwood, locust, and redbud blossoms. Surrounded by beauty and feeling the warmth of spring days, memories of the previous winter fade rapidly and are replaced by thoughts and hopes for the coming summer.

So it must have been for Reverend Miles Saunders in the spring of 1894. He was the voluntary weather observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau for Springfield, in Washington County, Kentucky. He made no observations in May 1894 until the 8th, writing the word absent in that space on the form. Perhaps he had been ill or was traveling during that period. When he resumed observations, he experienced a period of delightfully warm spring weather. The high temperatures were in the seventies and low eighties between the 9th and 17th of May. The culmination was a high on the 17th that reached 92˚F. A reading on 83F followed on the 18th. Rain arrived the following day with cooler temperatures for that Thursday.

Weather forecasts were not yet available in real time. No matter, no forecast could have foreseen what happened next. During Thursday night, winter returned with a vengeance. The temperature abruptly dropped, reaching a low of 35˚F by the time he read the thermometer at 7:00 a.m. Friday morning. During the day, it rose only to 45˚F before falling to 36˚F on Saturday morning, the 20th. Here is the way Saunders described the event in these detailed remarks: “ On 19 & 20 rain all day and night, on 20 Morn Heavy snow fell from 6 to noon & went off in drizzling rain — trees broke under the weight of weight of snow About 5 or 6 inches fell”

His comments indicate that he anticipated that his report of a five-inch snow on 20 May 1894 would be received skeptically. Even now, we find it difficult to believe. However, his description of the weight of the snow breaking the limbs off of trees confirmed his observations.

The snow severely broke limbs of both fruit trees and shade trees. The snow caused widespread crop damage too. The heavy snow weighed down the wheat, rye, and oats making recovery unlikely.

Elsewhere, there were reports of 5 to 8 inches of snow measured in West Liberty in Morgan County and about 8 inches in Mt Sterling in Montgomery County.

Newspaper accounts included statements from John J. Anderson who stated that about an equal amount had fallen on 14 May 1855. A Lexington nurseryman, M. F. Hillenmeyer said that snow covered the ground on 21 May 1883, but nothing like this one.

Fortunately for us, Norma Eversole of Mt Vernon, Kentucky shared with us this photograph of Joseph and Nancy Eversole taken near Wild Cat Mountain in Laurel County. The Saturday snow in the photo did not totally melt away until late Monday evening.

Observer's Record

Extreme events are by nature rare. The word most often associated with them is incredible, meaning beyond belief. It is good to have verifiable evidence to help us accept and fully appreciate these spectacular events.

Extremes in weather and climate commonly appear in either in quantity, frequency, time, or some combination of those.

The frequency of a record-breaking event is a function of the period of record. For example, during the first year of the period of record (POR), 365 record daily high temperature events would be set. During the second year, one would expect half of those to be broken, the following year a third would be broken. So, 365 ÷ POR is the likelihood of a daily record-breaking event. In the hundredth year, one would expect 3.65 new daily high temperature records. Which three days of that year will set a new record occur randomly, all days are equally probable. An old record is not more likely to be broken than a recent record.

Even so, this record may stand for a long time.