Historic Weather Maps: Tornado Outbreak of April 18, 1880

This was a weather map drawn back on April 18, 1880, showing the weather at 1AM Eastern for every weather station in the United States. Less than 24 hours later, dozens of tornadoes would tear across the central United States, killing over 100 people.

Looking at this piece of history puts everything into perspective. Put yourself in the position of this meteorologist on April 18, 1880. Electricity was on the cusp of commercial use, indoor plumbing was a novelty, the telephone is only four years old, and weather forecasting was little more than looking out the window and watching the barometer for changes in air pressure.

The weather map from 134 years ago showed a developing low pressure center over Kansas moving off towards the northeast. Southerly winds were blowing across much of the southern United States, with downright balmy temperatures for the middle of an April night — Vicksburg, MS recorded 73°, Shreveport, LA measured 75°, and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma sat at 78°.

Even without upper air maps (weather balloons didn't come into widespread use in the U.S. until the mid-1900s), it's easy to tell that this kind of setup is ripe for severe weather once the heat of the day starts to kick in.

Historic Weather Maps: Tornado Outbreak of April 18, 1880

During the day on April 18, a strong cold front swept across the central Plains, crashing into the muggy airmass and setting off an intense severe weather outbreak that produced dozens of tornadoes. The cold front is easily visible on the above map, analyzed at 1 AM on April 19. The red lines depict the temperature gradient, showing the strong drop in temps from the 70s along the Mississippi River to near freezing out west in Nebraska.

Historic Weather Maps: Tornado Outbreak of April 18, 1880

Historic Weather Maps: Tornado Outbreak of April 18, 1880

The worst tornado of the day occurred in Marshfield, Missouri. The tornado reportedly produced damage equivalent to that of an EF-5 tornado on our current system of measurement, destroying or heavily damaging almost every building in town and killing 99 people. The few pictures readily available on Google (both shown above) makes the damage look pretty bad, even for construction standards in the 19th century.

The next time you check a weather map or look at the radar, take a moment to appreciate how far technology has come since 1880.

Here are links to both of the above weather maps in full resolution. Each image is 19.6 megabytes in size, so click wisely.

April 18, 1880

April 19, 1880

[Images via NOAA / NOAA / Webster County Historical Society / State Historical Society of Missouri]

Correction: thanks to cowboyally in the comments for pointing out that the city in Oklahoma is "Fort Gibson," not "Fort Gunston." I've corrected in the text above.