10 of the Biggest Blizzards in History

It turns out that the United States is one of the most blizzard-prone countries on the planet.

Snow blankets the Donner Lake area in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
Snow blankets the Donner Lake area in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. / Anadolu/GettyImages

Storms become blizzards when the wind, blowing snow, and time collide. A storm with wind speeds of 35 mph or more and visibility of a quarter mile or less for at least three hours is classified as a blizzard, and they can occur nearly anywhere in the world. You can even have a blizzard without any falling snow.

While it’s no surprise that places nearer to the Arctic—like Russia, northern Europe, and Canada—are more susceptible to winter weather, the United States lucked into the ideal geography for fierce, financially damaging, and frequent winter storms. With temperate oceans on either side, the warm Gulf of Mexico to the south, and mountain ranges directing air flow, storm fronts and the jet stream clash and produce monster storms. Nearly every American state has issued at least one blizzard warning since 2005.

Considering all the consequences—casualties, damage to buildings, collapsing empires, and more—here are 10 of the biggest blizzards to ever batter the globe, listed in chronological order.

1. Carolean Death March of 1719 // Tydal, Norway

As measured by loss of life, the Carolean Death March was the world’s second-worst blizzard. It struck the Tydal mountain range in Norway in January 1719.

Sweden’s centuries-long expansion in the Baltic region had angered neighboring sovereign states, producing roughly 20 years of conflict dubbed the Great Northern War. Close to the war’s end, King Charles XII of Sweden lost territory to Russia, turned around to invade Norway, and died during an initial siege. Swedish troops (called Caroleans following the Latin form of Charles) were then ordered to retreat and take the shortest route home over the mountains. A freezing snowstorm sprang up and 200 of the poorly clothed and hungry soldiers died that night. The storm continued as the Caroleans retreated, ultimately killing and injuring more than 4000 soldiers. The blizzard marked a major milestone in the collapse of the Swedish Empire.

2. January Blizzards of 1886 // Kansas

Dodge City, Kansas, in 1880
The scene in Dodge City, Kansas, around the time that the blizzards struck. / Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Western Kansas was walloped by two separate blizzards during the first week of January 1886. The first hit Dodge City from January 1 to January 3, dumping at least 7.5 inches of snow. A more brutal blizzard barged in on January 6, combining freezing Arctic air with high winds to create one of the state’s coldest temperatures on record: -16°F, with wind chill making it feel like -40°F. The freezing, blinding conditions caused the deaths of at least 100 people, while snow-blasted railways couldn’t deliver passengers, food, and supplies.

Finally, the January blizzards decimated more than 100,000 cattle roaming the plains, as well as pigs and other animals. Some counties lost 75 percent of their herds.

3. Great Blizzard of 1888 // Maryland to Maine

New York During the Blizzard of 1888
New York during the Blizzard of 1888. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

The winter of 1888 proved deadly in the United States. The Schoolhouse or Children’s Blizzard struck in the middle of the day on January 12, 1888, pummeling the Northwest Plains and earning its tragic nickname because so many young students froze to death as they struggled home from school.

Two months later came the Blizzard of ‘88, which stretched along the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The unusual storm lacked the typical outbreak of cold air in advance of its arrival, and featured a stationary center with New York City in its bull’s-eye. The blizzard blanketed the city under 22 inches of snow, stripped bricks and materials off buildings with winds of 80 mph, and destroyed public utility lines. The storm’s tally came about 400 people killed, plus $20 million in property damages in New York alone (well over $500 million today). The disaster led to two major changes in the cityscape: the creation of New York’s subway system, replacing above-ground streetcars; and placement of power lines underground.

4. The Snow King of 1899 // Eastern Half of the U.S.

As it turns out, the late 1800s was a bad period if you were hoping to avoid getting caught in an American blizzard. The Snow King—a.k.a the Great Arctic Outbreak, the Great Blizzard of 1899, and the St. Valentine’s Day Blizzard—stirred up snow throughout most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. More than 30 inches of snow accumulated from Virginia to Connecticut between February 11 and February 14, 1899.

Aside from the ferocious flurries, this blizzard is notable for the unprecedented deep freeze it produced in certain parts of the Deep South. The Great Arctic Outbreak pushed subzero temperatures from Saskatchewan through 45 American states, all the way to Florida. Residents held a snowball fight on the capitol building steps in Tallahassee while the state’s citrus groves wilted under ice. The death toll was estimated at 100 people from different parts of the country.

5. Hakkodasan Disaster of 1902 // Hakkoda Mountains, Japan

The Hakkoda Mountains in winter.
The Hakkoda Mountains in winter. / maple’s photographs/Moment Open/Getty Images

In 1902, the Imperial Japanese Army was preparing for war with Russia. A Japanese infantry unit of 210 soldiers was commanded to cross the Hakkoda Mountains (Hakkodasan) in January as part of its training. The group set out with supply sleds but lacked protective clothing or mountaineering equipment, and on the third day of their trek, a blast of frigid air and snow struck. Temperatures dove to -42°F, a low pressure system produced whiteout conditions, and the men exposed at the high elevation began to freeze to death. In total, 193 died on the mountain, and six more succumbed within two months of their rescue. Only 11 survivors lived to tell the story.

As a result of the tragedy, the formerly obscure mountain range became well known through media reports, and several films and documentaries have been produced about the accident.

6. Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 // Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Surrounding States

On Thanksgiving weekend in 1950, one of the most unusual blizzards in history began as an extratropical cyclone (one occurring approximately 30 degrees north or south of the equator) gaining steam over North Carolina. It collided with a cold front in Ohio, sending fierce winds through several states; a gust of 108 mph was picked up in Newark, New Jersey, and the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire recorded wind speeds up to 160 mph. Coastal winds caused high tides and flooding in New Jersey and Connecticut. Fifty inches of snow swathed most of the central Appalachians, topping out at 62 inches—over 5 feet—in Coburn Creek, West Virginia.

But after the blizzard concluded, consequences continued. Above-average temperatures in December led to speedy snowmelt, flooding the Ohio River and swamping cities like Cincinnati. Considering all the stages of devastation, about 350 people lost their lives and damages totaled $66.7 million in 1950 (or about $647 million when adjusted for inflation).

7. Blizzard of 1972 // Ardakan, Iran

People attempt to free a crashed vehicle from a snowbank after the Ardakan blizzard.
People attempt to free a crashed vehicle from a snowbank after the Ardakan blizzard. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the heart of the desert, the city of Ardakan is considered one of the most arid areas in Iran and almost never receives snow. Yet, the world’s deadliest blizzard hit Ardakan in early 1972 and took 4000 lives within its boundaries. An additional 2000 people were reported missing in other parts of the country. In several smaller villages no survivors were found at all.

Leading up to the storm, Iran was on day 1460 of its worst drought on record. The situation switched seemingly overnight, with snow starting on February 3 and continuing for six days. More than 10 feet fell across northern and central regions, while 26 feet of snow buried southern Iran. Many people who chose to stay safe indoors as the storm raged outside froze within their homes and weren’t found until the drifts thawed. The blizzard broke power lines, disrupted transportation, and obliterated 200 villages.

8. Storm of the Century (1993) // East Coast of the U.S.

Careening out of the Gulf of Mexico, traveling through the Deep South and Cuba and up the entirety of America’s East Coast, and finishing in eastern Canada, the Storm of the Century currently reigns as the costliest blizzard in U.S. history. It raged from March 11 to March 14, 1993, and spanned more than two-thirds of the country. This blizzard, which experts consider a superstorm, featured hurricane-level storm surges, tornados, near-whiteout conditions, and even included a rare derecho (an extremely strong and enduring thunderstorm). Among the affected states, Tennessee received the most snow (about 60 inches), and New Hampshire recorded the worst winds with gusts of 144 mph on Mount Washington. Storm damage left more than 10 million people without power; many were stranded as interstate highways and airports closed. Both destructive and deadly, the blizzard brought $5.5 billion in damages (roughly $11.4 billion today) and killed about 270 people.

9. Blizzard of 2008 // Central and Western Afghanistan

Afghanistan earns the dubious distinction as the setting for history’s third-deadliest blizzard. The storm occurred in February 2008 amid the country’s worst winter in at least 10 years (records went back only that far). Temperatures plummeted to -22°F and storm clouds produced 6 feet of snow in the most mountainous parts of the country, making narrow roads and passes even more treacherous. Farmers and shepherds lost approximately 316,000 sheep, goats, and cattle, making economic recovery from the blizzard especially challenging. The storm claimed the lives of more than 900 people and left 170,000 people with respiratory infections and injuries from frostbite.

10. The Great Chinese Ice Storm of 2008 // Hunan Province, China

In January 2008, the worst weather in 50 years struck parts of southern and central China, stranding 178 million travelers on journeys home for the Chinese New Year (often the only opportunity of the year for urban workers to see their families). The series of severe storms spanned nearly a month. A convergence of tropical ocean and polar continental air masses delivered rain, sleet, and wet snow along with freezing temperatures. The driver behind this disaster wasn’t heavy snowfall, but rapid development: A 2011 study found that quickly built infrastructure and communities lacked contingency plans for extreme weather, and that natural resource extraction made the regions more vulnerable to the storm’s effects. The 2008 blizzards devastated homes, crops, roads, railways, and power lines: parts of Chenzhou, a city of 1.2 million people, had no power for eight days. At least 60 people died in the storm, which cost 18.2 billion yuan ($2.5 billion) in damage.

More Stories About Winter Weather