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The Deadliest Blizzards in History, From Iran to New York City

From Scandinavian death marches to killer nor’easters.
Blizzard in Minnesota, 2007. Image: Googleaseerch

Winter Storm Jonas rampaged through the Eastern seaboard this weekend, delivering 30 inches of snowfall and 85 miles per hour winds. Hundreds of thousands of people lost access to power across the coast, and unsafe driving conditions resulted in a spike in motor vehicle accidents, which killed at least 13 people. Officials have also reported two fatalities from hypothermia, and at least three people who died while shoveling snow.


This hefty toll is a reminder that big blizzards deliver devastating consequences, even if most of us are fortunate enough to ride them out comfortably atop sleds or under blankets. Indeed, we got off light with Jonas when you stack the storm next to the blizzards that have delivered the highest human casualties, which I have rounded up for your reading horror.

From frigid nor'easters to Scandinavian death marches, these are the top five deadliest blizzards in history.

5. The Storm of the Century

From March 12 to March 15, 1993, the East coast of North America was relentlessly pummeled by a cyclonic snowstorm that would come to be known as the Storm of the Century.

It gained momentum in the Gulf of Mexico, causing shipwrecks and drowning dozens of people in Cuba and Florida, then swept through a huge swath of the continent. Blizzards raged from Georgia to eastern Canada, spawning tornadoes in many places. An estimated 318 people were killed, while ten million households lost power.

4. The Great Blizzard of 1888

Much like the Storm of the Century, the Great Blizzard of 1888 hit the Eastern seaboard in the middle of March and raged for several days. But where the 1993 blizzard cut its teeth on Cuba and Florida, this Victorian nor'easter landed farther north, completely burying New England and eastern Canada under snowfalls as high as 50 feet.

Brooklyn after 1888 blizzard. Image: NOAA Photo Library/Historic NWS Collection

At least 200 ships were wrecked as the blizzard socked in over the Atlantic, resulting in the deaths of about 100 sailors. With its crowded tenements and slums, New York City was particularly hard hit, and 200 New Yorkers perished in the frigid temperatures, prompting passionate civic action aimed at improving transit, infrastructure, and disaster management.


3. The 2008 Afghanistan Blizzard

While Afghanistan is no stranger to harsh winters, a particularly cruel blizzard in February of 2008 took numerous communities by surprise, and took a tragic human toll. An estimated 926 people died of hypothermia, pneumonia, and other ailments brought on by the punishing cold.

Many were also killed or injured by avalanches, or structural collapses.

What's more, 316,000 livestock animals perished during the broader winter season, leaving many families without food, and compounding the public health crisis that emerged in the wake of the storm.

2. The Carolean Death March of 1719

The term "death march" never bodes well, but it is the only way to describe the grim military disaster that occurred in the Norwegian Tydal mountains in January 1719.

An army consisting of roughly 6,000 "Carolean" troops—Swedish soldiers named for kings Carl XI and Carl XII—were retreating through the mountains after an unsuccessful offensive against Norwegian territory.

But while they were pushing towards Sweden, an intense blizzard suddenly rolled in resulting in incredibly cold temperatures and whiteout conditions. It's estimated that at least 3,000 men froze to death over the next two days, along with many of the draft horses used as beasts of burden. The remaining survivors finally pulled through to Duved, Sweden, where there is now a monument erected to the victims of the harsh blizzard.

Swedish monument honoring death march victims. Image: Petey21

1. The 1972 Iran Blizzard

Iran seems like an incredibly random nation to have suffered the deadliest blizzard of all time, given its arid continental climate. Nonetheless, for a horrific week in February 1972, Iranians were subjected to some of the worst freak weather in modern history, which literally wiped hundreds of rural communities off the map.

Rescue workers were forced to dig through 26 feet of snow to reach submerged villages, and in many cases, there were no survivors. Roughly 4,000 people died during the disaster, which has fortunately never been repeated in severity since.