The Weather and Your Ancestors

by Jen Baldwin | Oct 17, 2013

Jen Baldwin

Society has been affected greatly by natural weather patterns and extreme events throughout recorded history. Have you ever thought to research how the weather affected your ancestors? Without the benefit of the Weather Channel and other mainstream media telling us what to expect each day (accurate or not!), how were their lives impacted by the unknown forces?

The Effect of Weather

Trying to develop a list of all the events that could affect an individual in their lifetime may be close to impossible. Forest fire, avalanche, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, flash floods, extreme temperatures, hurricanes, hail storms, ice storms, blizzards, drought. The United States has the distinction of having the worst weather on the planet. According to Kevin Hile in The Handy Weather Answer Book, the United States experiences more weather disasters annually than any other nation.

Was weather a reason for otherwise unexplained relocation in an ancestor's timeline? Would five years of drought be enough to push a family across state lines? Would a severe event, such as an earthquake or significant forest fire force a community to rebuild, or would it simply dissipate; residents merging themselves into neighboring towns? All of those circumstances are certainly feasible, and carry enough possibility that it deserves some of your research time.

Working the Resources

The availability of meteorology resources can be overwhelming, so here are the essential sites to start with. Remember, too, that these sources provide a variety of information, all of which can be utilized in your genealogy research.

The National Climatic Data Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a good place to start, and per their mission statement, they are responsible for "preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation's treasure of climate and historical weather data and information."


From the site, you can directly access data for a particular location, which includes a variety of reporting formats, including an annual summary. To gain a broader perspective, utilize their map viewer, which allows you to customize the map. I was able to find snowfall totals for the winter; defined as December - February; for the year of 1890. I can look at the entire country, or zoom into a specific area. The system allows you to gain incredibly specific information as it was made available by local reporting offices. The same search as described allowed me to learn that on E. Hanna Street, between Ohio Street and S. Douglas Avenue, in Columbia City, Indiana, they reported 0-10" of snow that winter. The ability to narrow your search scope to just define a one block radius is a rather attractive benefit to this portion of their collection of tools.

Granted, all of this information is dependent on having a land-based station nearby. Someone had to compile all the data and submit it, and historically, that process required a human being with a basic understanding of meteorology and its processes. To identify the station's available in the area you are researching, use the Station Metadata page and find the link to the HOMR or Historical Observing Metadata Repository. You can search as broadly as by state, or narrow the parameters to create a more specific results list. Be aware that you may have to filter your search very specifically. A general search of Colorado locations came up with over 1,000 results, covering the map. Once you are able to pinpoint a site of interest, utilize the station history to give details such as what years the station functioned, the latitude and longitude, elevation and the various names the station was known by.

NOAA has its own library - NOAA Central Library - and you can find much of the necessary information on its website. Although the physical location is in Maryland, the website includes a Photo Library, often featuring a historic image; databases, e-journals; virtual libraries and resources for inter-library loan items.

Severe weather can take many forms and the best place to start is the National Severe Storms Laboratory, also a division of the NOAA. To understand what is available on this site, start with the Severe Weather 101 page that will give you an introduction to the types of events that this organization manages.

Serious historical meteorological researchers should be sure to review the Guide to Historical Resources in the Atmospheric Sciences by James Rodger Fleming. It provides a plethora of research avenues to peruse. The list includes specific collections held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Academy of Sciences Archives, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Pinpointing the Weather

The application of the meteorological sciences need not be limited to overreaching, broad perspective. Various online resources are available, that will allow you to examine specific events or even specific days in your ancestors' life to determine what impact weather may have made. For example, 8 Jun 2003 was the 50th Anniversary of the 1953 Beecher Tornado that brought wide range destruction and 116 fatalities. It was an F5 event, the only tornado of that size to hit the southeast Lower Michigan area. The Detroit/Pontiac Forecast Office of the National Weather Service has a website dedicated to both the original storm and the commemoration events held in 2003. The site includes information about the 1953 disaster, including a detailed map of the path of the storm as it worked its way through two counties.

The Farmers' Almanac can be used to search within a specific zip code and date (1945 forward) for the daily temperature range, wind readings, etc. This is a simple and easy way to navigate through a mass of data when researching a narrow time frame. There are several options available to search through online, including "Weather History for the United States." The Farmers' Almanac, printed since 1818, was some of the original and most utilized resources for long range weather prediction. They are another source for historical information, though by their very nature, not as accurate or detailed as other options.

GenDisasters is a website focusing on "events that touched our ancestors' lives." Listing all variations of disasters - both natural and manmade - this is an ever growing collection of user submitted tragedies that struck society. Events range from tornadoes, floods and fires to mining accidents, airplane crashes and explosions. Be sure to list your own findings as you explore the site. Submissions are typically in the form of transcribed newspaper notices and articles.

Lastly, it would not be a thorough examination of meteorological information without a look at the basic atlas. Determining if your family farmed in a typical steppe climate, or a humid subtropical one, and the major waterways traveling through the region can truly open your eyes to the "whys" and "hows" of a life dependent on agricultural means. A standard atlas, such as those printed by Rand McNally, can provide a global or national scope of resources. [You can learn more about using geography with your research in "Exploring Your Ancestors' World with Geography."] 

The Forecast

I invite you to explore the meteorological aspects of your genealogical research. How many memorable events did they encounter? There are times when trying to understand the thought process behind your ancestors' actions can lead you down many trails; the resources described here are just a small fraction of what you might be able to find when incorporating science into your family history. There may be times when you learn that severe weather resulted in the loss of historical records. It is not, however, necessary to end your search with that discovery. The story of that historical event - the storm itself! - is a piece of your past, and can be told as a unique event in the lives of your ancestors. Do not let the confusion of stormy seas turn you away from this search; simply find another way around to calmer waters; and a greater understanding of your forbears.

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