Lincoln Remembers the October 1997 Snowstorm

Posted By: Alden German

It was nearly the year without a Halloween.

Starting on the evening of October 25, 1997, Lincoln was hit by a powerful snowstorm of 13 inches that broke tree branches, canceled school, and downed power lines leaving thousands without electricity for days.

 Channel 8’s own Chief Meteorologist Dean Wysocki was there 20 years ago.

"I remember forecasting that night before, there was one computer model that was really pretty much giving us a direct hit. All the other computer models were basically saying rain one to three inches," Wysocki says.

Dean says his forecast of high snow amounts was based on a gut decision. The morning of the storm, a lot of forecasts called for three inches of snow. Later that afternoon, it became clear this event would be more significant than anticipated.

"The computer models kind of all convened together saying ‘oh wait a minute.’ Not only has the track of the storm shifted a little bit, but we also started introducing thunder sleet and thunder snow," Dean says.

Like a springtime thunderstorm, thundersnow results in areas of heavy snowfall that can pile up quickly.

Dr. Mark Anderson, a meteorology professor at UNL, says temperatures were a large contributor to the damage.

"During the snow period it never got below 32 degrees. Most of the temperatures were 33, 34 degrees at the surface," Anderson says.

When temperatures are above freezing, snow melts. In this case, however, the snowflakes were large and falling fast enough that they didn’t melt, so it piled up, resulting in a wet, heavy snow.

"And what really caused the damage was because of all the leaves still on the trees,” says Anderson. “We had not had any cold weather at all up to that point, so the snow just stuck to the branches and the weight of this ten to fourteen inches of snow on the branches just started snapping them, which broke the power lines."

Dean and Dr. Anderson agree snow forecasting is difficult. Little things make a big difference.

"A shift in a track of 50 miles of a storm makes the difference between maybe two to three inches and eight to 12," says Wysocki.

The location of where rain changes to snow is significant.

"The biggest issue for snow forecasting is that rain–temperature line. And the heaviest snow falls just to the north of that rain–snow line. So again, if you’re not getting the exact location right, it’s not that you just get rain or snow, you get heavy snow," says Anderson.

Meteorologists are more accurate today than ever before. Weather model technology has had 20 years of advancement since that storm, but sometimes the best tool is the human eye.

"Models are really good. They tell us a lot, especially in the longer range, but the human does the best in the 12 to 24 hour forecast," says Anderson.

The good news is no snow is in the forecast for this Halloween, but many will not forget the snowstorm of ’97.