GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — So much has changed since 1978. The technology, the lead time, the way line and road crews are able to prepare and respond during a storm.

The blizzard of 1978 will always stand as a landmark.

That being said, I wanted to do an Ask Ellen article to open up the discussion about our most recent blizzard and the many ways it compares and differed from the historic storm. Below is a single image from each of the two storms:

BLIZZARD OF ’78 HAD FAR LESS LEAD TIME

Meteorology and the science of forecasting has gotten massively better since the 1970s and 1980s. This shouldn’t be a surprise: Just think of how much our cell phones have advanced in the last decade.

The Blizzard of 1978 came with almost no warning. In fact, it was so hard-hitting it snowed in one of the most well-known meteorologists at the time, Craig Woods. Luckily, Bill Steffen was stranded at the TV station, where he continued to do weather updates and became a West Michigan household name.

Copy of Bill Steffen’s weather forecast the morning of January 26, 1978.

The blizzard of 2022 had much more lead time. In fact, meteorologists were mentioning the potential of a “bigger impact” storm about a week before it hit the nation, allowing stores to stock up and sell out, travelers to change or cancel their plans, and crews to be fully stocked and staffed. Road crews were able to plan their responses and make a plan for clearing the streets.

This longer lead time almost certainly lessened death toll in the area.

12z European model forecast for 7 a.m. Friday, Dec. 23, 2022.

SNOWFALL RATES/TOTALS HIT DIFFERENT PLACES HARDER

In 2022, the Blizzard was almost exclusively a lake-effect event, meaning different areas were likely impacted worse than in the blizzard of 1978. 

Grand Rapids saw a higher storm total snow from the blizzard of 2022, with the total amount coming in at 22.5 inches, but the blizzard of 1978 dropped snow at a higher rate and in less time. According to Steffen, 16.1 inches of snow fell in just 24 hours in Grand Rapids during the blizzard of 1978, which still stands as the highest single day snow total. The final snow total in Grand Rapids was 19.5 inches.

This quick-hitting aspect of the blizzard of 1978 was what likely accounted for so many stranded motorists on the roads and a higher death toll.

In Muskegon, the five-day storm total snowfall during the blizzard of 1978 came in at a whopping 36.4 inches. The blizzard of 2022 produced much less snow for Muskegon, with only about 5 to 12 inches.

Allegan and Ottawa counties, just south of Muskegon, saw 14 to 20 inches.

SNOW TYPE WAS LIKELY DIFFERENT

This is a harder point to make but an important one. Not all snow is created equally. Water content can have a big impact on how difficult snow is to shovel or how easily the snow is subjected to blowing and drifting. While both storms featured a mixture of system-snow and lake effect snow, the blizzard of 2022 likely had a lot more of the “small dendrite” snow due to the much colder air.

During the blizzard of 1978, the average air temperature was 24 degrees; During the blizzard of 2022 the average air temperature was 15 degrees.

Blizzard comparison by NWS Grand Rapids. “What we found was that the recent storm had more snow, colder temperatures, and similar winds to the infamous 1978 storm. It also lasted longer. However, there was more snow on the ground when the 1978 storm began and the snow depth of 27 inches inches after the storm was 10 inches more than our recent storm, resulting in deeper drifts.”

While winds were reported to have gust in other states as high as 60 to 70 mph during the blizzard of 1978, the average gust speed locally was around 46 mph. The blizzard of 2022 produced gusts of 50 to 60 mph in Michigan and was the clear leader in “number of blizzard hours.” Muskegon saw the most hours under a blizzard, coming in at 12. South Haven, Kalamazoo, Holland, Grand Rapids and Muskegon all officially reported several hours of blizzard conditions.

BOTH PRODUCED HIGH DEATH TOLLS NATIONALLY

Both storm systems were quite large. The blizzard of 2022 swept down from the Plains, leaving the highest death count in winter-savvy Buffalo, New York. The blizzard of 1978 slammed New England and moved “backwards” into Michigan and Ohio, leaving the highest death count in Ohio.

Total deaths from the Blizzard of 2022 have reached 65, according to CNBC, most of which were in western New York where at least 40 are confirmed dead according to the AP. In Michigan, blizzard-related deaths are trickling in. WLNS, WOOD TV8’s sister station in Lansing, reported police were investigating eight weather-related deaths in mid-Michigan, including an incident where three people died after being found dead in the snow.

Surface pressure map on Dec. 23, 2022, showing the deep surface pressure of the blizzard of 2022 storm.

At least 70 people were presumed dead due to the blizzard of 1978. Most of these deaths were reported in Ohio, according to the National Weather Service.

“This included 5 in Kentucky, 11 in Indiana and 51 in Ohio. Of the Ohio fatalities, 22 were the result of exposure as individuals abandoned their stranded vehicles or homes with no heat. Thirteen individuals died from the cold while trapped inside their vehicles, and another 13 died inside their homes after losing power and heat. Two others died in buildings that collapsed under the weight of heavy snow,” the NWS said.

Map showing the deep surface pressure and placement of the blizzard of 1978. (Courtesy NWS)

BOTTOM LINE

The storm of 1978 will always stand as a legacy storm. It is by far one of the worst in recent West Michigan history and had a lasting impact. The storm “impact” was also much more uniformly felt by the community.

Recovery from the blizzard of 2022 in West Michigan was much faster than the blizzard from 1978, but it did produce some of the harshest conditions we’ve seen in years, if not decades, for some. The storm “impact” was not as uniformly intense for everyone in West Michigan. In some areas it was harsher than the Blizzard of 1978; in some areas, tamer.

Both storms remind us how powerful and deadly the atmosphere can be.