Pre-Christmas Ohio River Valley Snowstorm Broke All Records: Storm Intensity, Size, and Damages, Illinois State Water Survey

Press Release

For Immediate Release April 5, 2005
Pre-Christmas Ohio River Valley Snowstorm Broke All Records: Storm Intensity, Size, and Damages
Stan Changnon - (217) 244-0494, Fax: (217) 586-5691,
Eva Kingston - (217) 244-7270, Fax: (217) 333-6540,

(Champaign) Most of us are thinking about spring and want to forget winter, but not everyone. What’s on the mind of Stan Changnon, chief emeritus of the Illinois State Water Survey ( and adjunct professor of geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the immense snowstorm on December 22–23, 2004, which broke all records for storm intensity, size, and damages, garnered national attention, and dumped record snowfall not only across Illinois but in the Ohio River valley where heavy snows and ice seldom occur.

“Along with 17 deaths and thousands of injuries, losses in the transportation sector from flight delays and more than 200 flight cancellations, and other losses/damages associated with the storm exceed $900 billion. That figure includes $230 million in insured property losses, qualifying the storm as a national winter storm catastrophe, defined as an event in which losses exceed $25 million. More than 120 counties in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky were declared emergency areas. Losses are nearly double the $120 million average for the nation’s winter snowstorms and rank 32nd among the nation’s 167 catastrophic winter storms since records began in 1949,” says Changnon.

“Timing of the storm couldn’t have been worse, making travel hazardous and stranding thousands of holiday travelers across the Midwest. The storm’s southwest–northeast orientation from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo, Illinois, to Cleveland, Ohio, blocked both east–west traffic across the eastern United States and north–south traffic between the Midwest and South,” continues Changnon.

Not only did the storm occur just as travel was at its peak for 62 million people—the most travelers in any holiday season, including 51 million by car—but snowfall totals exceeded 6 inches or more over 121,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Illinois and Indiana. Southern and eastern portions of the large snowstorm area had freezing rain with ice layers up to 2 inches thick in parts of Kentucky and Ohio.

The storm generally lasted 30 hours along and south of a line from Cape Girardeau, Missouri; across southern Illinois; to Evansville, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky; and then into Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, Ohio. “Nearly all those locations experienced rain, freezing rain and/or sleet, and snow, often switching back and forth among all these forms,” says Changnon.

“What’s unusual is that this record snowfall occurred over rolling topography and hills, areas that usually don’t have heavy snows. Record snows occurred in southern Indiana (29 inches at Seymour, 24.5 inches at Greensburg, 22.3 inches at Evansville, and 18 inches at Bloomington), Ohio (24 inches at Greenfield and 23 inches at Mansfield), and Kentucky (14 inches at Paducah). Many of those totals are significantly higher than the records set by the storm in southern Illinois: 18 inches at Carmi, 14 inches at McLeansboro, and 12 inches at Carbondale. These areas are not accustomed to this type of storm,” says Changnon.

Temperatures across the Midwest fell well below freezing after the storm began before plunging to their coldest levels all winter on December 24–25, including -11°F, a new record low on Christmas Day at Evansville, Indiana,” says Changnon.

“This combination hampered removal of snow and ice from pavement and made travel and recovery efforts so dangerous that many rescue vehicles became stuck. Vehicles just slid off the road on slick slopes, and many jack-knifed semis blocked both lanes on interstates. Aircraft delays and more than 200 flight cancellations occurred. Local, urban, county, and state snow-removal facilities just were not equipped to deal with such a massive storm despite the National Weather Service’s forecasts prior to the winter storm,” says Changnon.

"Chances for a heavy snowstorm in the Midwest late in the spring are slim. If such a storm did occur, warmer temperatures quickly would melt any snow," adds Changnon.

A report due out soon will contain complete findings about this record storm, the most significant storm in 104 years. The work by Changnon and co-author David Changnon, geography professor at Northern Illinois University, was funded by the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the ISWS.

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