Fact Sheet - The Great Ice Storm of '51
When you think about dangerous and life-threatening weather in Kentucky, winter storms probably don't come to mind. However, while many people are well aware of the threats associated with hazards such as tornadoes and flash floods, winter storms that bring ice and snow to Kentucky can be equally devastating. One such storm occurred during January-February 1951.
Leading up to January 31, 1951 an unusually strong high-pressure system began pulling cold, polar air into the region. Meanwhile, as a strong low-pressure system moved along a cold front that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico toward the Northeast, sleet and freezing rain spread over much of the South beginning on the 31st. A rawinsonde reading from Nashville, Tennessee at 21:00 CST on the 30th indicated that temperatures at the surface were well below freezing: about -8C, with a northeast wind. However, at just 5,000 feet above the surface, winds were from the southwest and the temperature was well above freezing: closer to 9C. This set up a perfect environment for freezing rain to develop.
On January 31, nearly three inches of snow and sleet had covered Bowling Green, KY. Traffic was brought to a standstill. By noon, the snow had turned to rain as warm air aloft had moved over the region. But with the surface temperature standing at 28°F the rain froze upon impact. Bulldozers were used in an effort to scrape off the ice, but they proved to be of little use. Nashville recorded 3.83 inches of precipitation with five inches of snowfall. By the afternoon the temperature warmed just enough to turn some of the ice to slush, a sign that the situation might be improving.
Instead, as the next morning ushered in February, conditions worsened. The temperature started to plummet, reaching -1°F before day's end. In southern Kentucky, seven inches of new snow fell. By now, travel had become virtually impossible. Eastern Air Lines cancelled flights for three days. Only two of 28 scheduled Greyhound buses arrived in Bowling Green the day after the storm hit. Trains of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad were as much as two days behind schedule. Tree limbs cracked and fell on power lines strained by the weight of accumulated ice resulting in the loss of electricity throughout the region. Fortunately, most homes in 1951 were not as reliant on electricity as they are today, and many people were able to at least restore heat to their homes.
Conditions had changed by February 2, but not necessarily for the better. While the storm had abated, record cold gripped Kentucky and Tennessee. At 4:45 a.m., Bowling Green recorded a temperature of -20°F, the coldest official temperature ever recorded up to that time. It was -13°F in Nashville. Meanwhile, the storm left nine inches of snow and sleet on the ground in southern Kentucky and eight inches in middle Tennessee. Crews had already worked for 48 straight hours trying to restore power and phone lines. Transportation was still halted. Water pipes leading to residents' houses burst due to the excessive cold. One man reported that after standing in front of a heater for a few minutes, he walked outside and the buttons on his overcoat shattered instantly. The Western Kentucky Gas Company reported that it expected record consumption of gas. Some trains were running two days late. Ten days later the area still had not recovered from the ice and snow.
The Great Ice Storm of '51 covered the south in a linear path of ice from Louisiana to Ohio. The heaviest accumulations fell in a line from Memphis, Tennessee to Nashville and northeastward to Lexington. At that time it was the costliest winter storm on record, causing an estimated $100 million in damage. The impact on forest, livestock, crops, and fruit trees was responsible for over $64 million of that total. An estimated 25 people lost their lives across the storm-affected area, and 500 were injured.
Fortunately, ice storms of this magnitude are not common. Until 1951, the only recorded storm of similar magnitude had occurred in February 1899, some 52 years prior. According to a report published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the region can expect a storm producing inch of ice load with a concurrent three second gust wind speed of 30 miles per hour about once every 50 years. Since 1949, 50 ice storms with inch of ice or more have hit somewhere in the Southeast with seven of these storms affecting Bowling Green and four affecting Nashville. The last significant ice storm in Kentucky occurred in January of 1994 when the State's interstate highway system was paralyzed, but it did not approach the 1951 storm in accumulation or frigid temperature. As Kentuckians become increasingly dependent on technology, how will we cope when the next major ice storm strikes?
Harlin, Ben W., The Great Southern Glaze Storm of 1951, Weatherwise, February, 1952, pp. 10-13.
Communications Disrupted..., The Park City Daily News, Bowling Green, Kentucky, February 1, 1951.
Climatological Data, Kentucky. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, January 1951, Volume XLVI, No. 1.
This Date in History Climate Summary, Midwestern Regional Climate Center website, 2001, Internet: http://mcc.sws.uiuc.edu.
EPRI Freezing Rain Ice Mapping Project: Region 2, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, June 1997, pp. B-14. .