Insights & News

Thanksgiving – Part I (History)

7th November 2019

A Legendary Tradition

One of the United States’ greatest annual celebrations approaches – Thanksgiving.

This long-standing tradition originated in Oct 1621 as a celebration, by the Pilgrims, of their first harvest in the New World. In 1789, it was adapted to become a national event, with a proclamation by George Washington on request of Congress.

Until 1942, its timing and frequency was variable, but since then, it’s routinely been held on the 4th Thursday of November.

Family Versus Weather

In the modern era, people flock together from hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. It amounts to one of the busiest times of the year for the U.S. travel network.

When it comes to long-distance travelling, the weather is worth watching out for. Damaging windstorms and flooding rains can greatly increase journey times or even force abandonment.

‘When it comes to long-distance travelling, the weather is worth watching out for. Damaging windstorms and flooding rains can greatly increase journey times or even force abandonment, which no one wants in the holiday season.’

Then there’s the late-autumn snowstorms. Of all the types of weather event, heavy, settling snow has perhaps the greatest potential to cause widespread thanksgiving travesty! Such an event tends to be confined to higher elevations (at least 1000 feet ASL) in late November, but occasionally one has been known to affect low levels too.

Notorious Snowstorms of Thanksgivings Past

Among the most infamous is the Great Appalachian Storm of 1950. It struck two days after thanksgiving, putting down 2-3 feet of snow widely, from northern Ohio to western Pennsylvania and down through West Virginia. This, coupled with strong winds and heavy rain elsewhere, inflicted total damages of $67 million in 1950 U.S. dollars. Truly devastating.

In 1971, the north-eastern U.S. was inundated by heavy snow during the Wed & Thu. Parts of north-eastern Pennsylvania reported more than 2 feet of snow, while over 2.5 feet was observed in some surrounding areas. Temperatures were barely below freezing, so the snow was extremely heavy (‘wet snow’). At times it fell at a rate of 2-3 inches per hour!

Late on the Wed until early on the Thu in 1989, disruptive snowfall accumulated from Virginia to New England. Generally, depths peaked at 4-8 inches from New Jersey to New England. A few spots in Cape Cod saw over a foot of level snow. Meanwhile, New York saw its first Thanksgiving Day snowfall in 51 years, while Washington, D.C. saw its snowiest on record.

More recently, on the Wed of 2013, 6-12 inches of snow blanketed a region stretching from the higher elevations of West Virginia and western Maryland to northern New England, via southern and central New York.

A year later, this was outdone by a storm that struck a little further east. Fourteen inches of snow was observed in Monterrey, Virginia. Widespread power outages (e.g. 160,000 in New England alone) played havoc with food preparation and entertainment efforts.

Snowstorm Signals for 2019

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m focusing on the risk of disruptive snow affecting Thanksgiving this year. Specifically, I’m going to examine the signals for the peak travel and activity days of 27th-28th.

We’ve already come a long way here, so for the look ahead, please take this exit for a fast-track to part II.


James Peacock MSc

Head Meteorologist at MetSwift

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