Discover the Biggest October Snowstorm to Ever Hit Minnesota

Written by Sanaphay Rattanavong
Published: October 5, 2023
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Minnesotans of a certain age can’t stop talking about the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. Too young to be anywhere when President Kennedy was assassinated (November) and finding 9/11 (September) a distasteful dinner table topic, every October brings jack-o-lanterns, post-peak foliage, and tales of the Halloween Blizzard (no year needed, since who could forget?). In a state known for its frigid winters and intense snows, this storm stands out. Here, we trick-or-treat our way across the various reasons why this October blizzard was the biggest and arguably most interesting in Minnesota’s recorded history of October snowstorms.

Heavy snow in Minnesota

While Minnesota is known for its heavy snowstorms, these typically occur between the months of December and February, give or take a month.

©Plume Photography/Shutterstock.com

Historical Perspective on October Snows

Before diving into the wet and wild blizzard of ’91, we are behooved to satisfy the meteorological history buffs out there by noting the following: On October 18, 1916, Baudette, Minnesota, known as the “Walleye Capital of the World,” recorded 16 inches of snowfall within a 24-hour period. Good story. Now let us proceed back to the future.

The Halloween Blizzard of 1991: A Storm to Remember

From October 31 through November 3, 1991, the Halloween Blizzard of ’91 raged like a candy-less kid on Christmas (to mix holidays and metaphors). At the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (MSP), it dumped 28 inches and just shy of 37 inches in Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior. To put this in perspective, the average total snowfall for the entire month of October in Minnesota ranges from 0.5 inches in the Twin Cities to 2.7 inches in Northeastern Minnesota (Duluth, the North Shore along Lake Superior). In Southern Minnesota, cities like Brainerd and Detroit Lakes receive an average of 0.7 inches and 1.1 inches of snow in October, respectively.

What also makes the Halloween Blizzard special? Consider this: According to the National Weather Service, blizzard-prone regions typically see 2.6  blizzards per season, mainly between the months of December and February. Sure, there’s historical precedent for October snowstorms, as humbly acknowledged above. But most Minnesotans weren’t in Baudette in 1916, so can’t be blamed for expecting a nice night of Halloween festivities in 1991. Boohoo, you might say, the kids got a little snow in their costumes. To understand why this blizzard was so memorable, it’s important to distinguish between your average snowstorm and full-blown blizzards.

Blizzard

During blizzards, whiteout conditions can make it hard to navigate, as visibility often drops to near zero.

©Mark Payne/Shutterstock.com

Blizzards: Nature’s Fierce Snowstorms

So, ever been caught in a snowstorm where the world around you turns white, and you can’t see two feet in front of you? That, my friend, is a blizzard for you. They’re not just about snow piling up, but that snow getting thrown every which way by gale-force winds. These aren’t your everyday snowflakes leisurely falling from the sky. It’s Mother Nature in an expansive white gown throwing a snowy gale-force tantrum.

While places like the Midwest and the Great Plains in the US frequently deal with these icy outbursts, anywhere with snow can see blizzard conditions. You just need the right ingredients:

Chilly Air: First up, you need the cold. Think of this as your dish’s base.

A Dash of Moisture: To whip up those clouds and get some snow going.

A Stir in the Air: Imagine moist air climbing over cold air. As it rises, it cools, and snow forms. Add in some gusty winds, and you’ve got yourself a blizzard.

While many of us are likely thinking about the delicious DQ variety, non-dessert blizzards can be extremely dangerous. Venturing out during one is like walking out into a blank white canvas. Roads disappear, landmarks play hide and seek, and before you know it, you could be lost or stuck in a snowdrift.

Blizzards don’t just affect travel; they also impact our homes. From power outages to frozen pipes and the weight of snow stressing roofs, the challenges are many. Schools close, life comes to a standstill.

Reflecting on the Halloween Blizzard of ’91, we can say with confidence it wasn’t just any blizzard, but an event etched in Minnesota’s history.

The Rarity of Snow on Halloween

Snowfall on Halloween is uncommon, even in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota DNR, the last measurable snow on this day was back in 1995, with half an inch recorded. Let’s lay out the data in a neat table:

YearSnowfall (inches)Notes
18840.6Less than an inch.
18850.2Way less than an inch.
19321.4Okay, more than an inch.
19540.4Less than half an inch.
19918.2Wow! Halloween Blizzard of 1991,  record-breaking snowfall in the following days.
19950.5Half an inch. And the rest is silence.
Summary table of recorded snowfall in Minnesota on Halloween

In the state’s recorded history, measurable snowfall on Halloween has only occurred six times. The 1991 blizzard is clearly heads and shoulders above the other snow events by a Minnesota mile.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

At least there’s beauty in the aftermath of major snowstorms and beauties, such as Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis pictured here.

©Karla Caspari/Shutterstock.com

Minnesota’s Snowfall Landscape: A Wider Perspective

As we can all use a little perspective now and again, let’s enjoy another table:

Region/AreaLocationAverage Annual Snowfall (inches)
Southern MinnesotaWinona37.6
Southern MinnesotaRochester53.1
Northeastern MinnesotaDuluth90.2
Northwestern MinnesotaBrainerd48.2
Statewide (Minnesota)Lake Superior “snow belt”>70
National Ranking (Minnesota)11th43.4
National Ranking (New Hampshire)1st174.35
Summary table of annual snowfall averages and statewide rankings (New Hampshire at number 1, Minnesota at number 11)

The Minnesota DNR cautions against what we consider “normal” snowfall, as so many factors are at play. Additionally, climate change has likely been playing with winter’s knobs behind the scenes.

Memories of the ’91 Blizzard: Echoes on Social Media

There are many social media posts and memories about the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 in Minnesota. It’s hard to imagine how many more posts would exist if the historical storm happened in, say, 2021 instead of 1991. But we have the memories, and with them the stories.

Social Media Memories

The stories from a Reddit thread about why Minnesotans still talk about the Halloween snowstorm reminisce about the memorable Halloween blizzard of 1991 in Minnesota. One user shared the joy of being snowed in with a bounty of candy, courtesy of their brave trick-or-treating amidst the blizzard. Another reminisced about a smart costume choice providing enough warmth to continue the candy hunt, while others reflected on the adventurous spirit of the night, despite the cold and snow, making it a cherished childhood memory.

Another Reddit thread recounts personal tales from the Halloween Blizzard, painting a vivid picture of an adventurous night. The stories encapsulate the spirit of adventure amidst a fierce blizzard, from a child collecting a dining table’s worth of candy, clever costume adaptations to the cold, to a newcomer realizing the harsh Minnesotan winters.

On the 30th anniversary of the blizzard, people were still all atwitter:

Media Mediated Memories

A Kare 11, a local news outlet, social media call-out in 2018 proved that memories from the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 are still fresh in people’s minds. The storm started with rain, changed to freezing rain, and then snow. The snow started at 11 a.m. on Halloween day and basically never let up. People struggled to get home from work and school as 3”-5” of snow was already piling up by late afternoon. Major updates and changes to the forecast were only available on radio and television, as weather information was not available on smart phones or social media at the time.

For the storm’s 30th anniversary, KARE 11 put out a call on Facebook for Minnesotans to share their memories of the blizzard. One individual reminisced about the adventurous spree of trick-or-treating they embarked upon with a friend and younger brother, finding joy in darting through mounds of snow. In a contrasting narrative, another person recounted being ensnared in downtown Minneapolis as the blizzard unfurled its might, turning what should have been a brief journey into a grueling three-hour ordeal to cover a mere 2.5 miles back home. The scene was one of communal resilience and surreal imagery: people united in pushing cars from one snow rut to the next, while snowmobiles zipped down urban streets, momentarily transforming the cityscape into a wintry wilderness.

For the Record

A Pioneer Press article from 2016 describes how the blizzard claimed at least seven lives, threw traffic into disarray for days on end, and forced schools and businesses to close their doors. Known as the Halloween Blizzard, it still reigns with the records for the highest snowfall total from a single storm and the highest accumulation in a 24-hour span. As fate would have it, the city of St. Paul found itself in a race against time, scrambling to clear away autumn leaves from its streets when snowflakes began their descent around noon on Halloween. The blizzard set seven new snowfall and temperature records in the Twin Cities, six of which still stand 30 years later.

The Pioneer Press has several articles about the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. An article from 2021 delves into the storm’s relentless fury, detailing how a record-shattering 20.4 inches of snow enveloped the area within 24 hours. While the blizzard snuffed out lives, it also kindled a spark of playfulness among the residents. Undeterred, adventurous children donned their costumes for trick-or-treating, while ski enthusiasts seized the chance to glide over the early powder. Adding a touch of the whimsical, two daring souls engaged in a round of golf at St. Paul’s Como Golf Course amidst the snowdrifts. The ordeal also illustrated a heartwarming tableau of community spirit; residents of the Twin Cities rallied together, pushing stranded vehicles free from snow’s clutches and clearing snow-choked walkways, embodying a silver lining amidst the blizzard’s wrath.

National Recognition

The National Weather Service has a page dedicated to the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. They note how the 1991 Halloween Blizzard and the “Perfect Storm” (a nor’easter that hit the Northeast coast causing widespread destruction) were concurrently unfolding meteorological events around late October to early November. While the blizzard was inundating the Northland region with record snowfall, the “Perfect Storm” was wreaking havoc along the Northeast coast.

These weather phenomena were part of a larger atmospheric setup. The “Perfect Storm” was a deadly nor’easter fueled by a cold front, a high-pressure system, and Hurricane Grace. Exacerbated by the interaction of a cold front, a high-pressure system, and Hurricane Grace, it led to lethal conditions at sea. Notably, it claimed the lives of the crew aboard the Andrea Gail. At the same time, the Halloween Blizzard ensued as the “Perfect Storm” began to wind down, bringing heavy snowfall to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Conclusion

Overall, it seems that memories of the Halloween Blizzard of ’91 are still vivid for many Minnesotans, and the storm is remembered as a significant event in the state’s history. So for those with little ones heading out this Halloween braced for what weather may come, don’t let the opportunity pass to share Minnesota’s snowiest October 31 that has proved to generate more stories than the state has lakes.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © RHartley/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Embracing the interplay between the arts, nature, and technology, Sanaphay Rattanavong sculpts narratives through both data and human/animal-focused lenses at A-Z Animals, primarily in the realms of weather, culture, cleantech, and climate resilience. His specializations also include creativity and animal intelligence. And cats. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and has labored for more than 10 years in the trenches of journalistic, blog, magazine, and fiction writing. An outdoor enthusiast who also enjoys the finer things in culture, Sanaphay resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with stints in Toronto, Ontario.

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