The snowfall of winter 1956

Federico Fellini in Amarcord reproduces scenes of Rimini, a town at sea level, in 1956, blocked by snow walls over 1 meter (3ft 4 inches) high...

The snowfall and the wave of cold weather that hit the continent of Europe and Italy in the winter of the year 1956 are events of special significance and exceptional historic magnitude. The events must be analyzed on a global climatic scale as one big anomaly involving the entire period 1955-56, starting with the austral winter from June to October 1955, followed in the northern hemisphere from December 1955 to March 1956 and again the next austral winter from June 1956 to September 1956.

The Winter of 1955 in the Southern Hemisphere

The winter of 1955 was extraordinary freezing in the entire southern hemisphere. In Brazil, it snowed in Curtibe and Porto Alegre. In Sao Paulo - a city on the Tropic of Capricorn, although at 800 meters (2624 ft) of altitude, where temperatures usually never drop below 10° C (50° F) and temperatures below 5° C (41° F) are exceptional - the lowest temperature ever was recorded: -2.1° C (28.22° F).

The Winter of 1956 in the Northern Hemisphere

It was extremely cold on the American east coast. In the Caribbean in February 1956 there was the lowest temperatures ever recorded: 16° C in Puerto Rico and 11° C (51.8° F) in Santo Domingo, places well below the 20th parallel in the hot Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, on the Old Continent, a wave of exceptional cold was hitting much of Europe and Italy, with such abundant snowfalls that are remembered as the "Snowfall of the Century": the heaviest snowfall on the whole Italian peninsula, followed only by those in the winters of 1929 and 1985.

The Winter of 1956 in the Southern Hemisphere

That year ended with a terribly cold wave in the Southern Hemisphere, with snow mixed with rain at Geraldton in Western Australia, at a latitude 28.48 ° South, which was the snowfall at lowest latitude ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. Usually, cold waves affecting Europe and North America are a consequence of stratwarming, which is an unusual heating of the stratosphere above the North Pole, which in turn leads to tropospheric arctic anticyclones, with consequent descent of cold air to lower latitudes.

But not so in 1955-1956, the longest and geographically widest cold wave in the 20th century. The only known natural source of such a global cooling may be a major volcanic eruption, but there was none in those years. Some theories, although not proven, maintain that the true origins of the anomalous climate were anthropogenic, a consequence of the Cold War. As a matter of fact, the last nuclear surface tests made by the Americans and Russians were exacly in the years immediately before: in 1956 mankind had just a small taste of what a nuclear winter would be. Among other theories, the cause of so much cold was also attributed to the high number of sunspots, as many as 135, recorded in that period.

The Causes of the Phenomenon in Europe

The main climatic variables responsible for the event were:
  • The descent of a strong cold current from the high latitudes, with an initial cooling of northern Europe;
  • The formation of an intense high pressure on Central Europe and Eastern Siberia;
  • The continued expansion of the Azores high pressure into the Arctic Circle, from where cold inflows continued to descend towards the cold core in Europe
  • The formation of a closed Mediterranean depression, constantly fed by cold arctic air from the European core.
This set of phenomena created a situation unlikely to be repeated, exactly for the rare coincidence of all the variables involved. However, differently from 1963 and 1985, in 1956 there was no stratospheric warming (stratwarming), which is usually blamed for rapid, intense temperature dropdowns in Central Europe.

The time span of the event was also very significant: on January 27, 1956 a powerful mass of cold air at high altitude and at ground level left the polar latitudes and descended into Scandinavia, reaching in two days Sweden, Finland, and then large areas of Europe, including Italy, which was in the grip of frost until 20 February.

During that terrible winter, even Africa was struck by incredible snowfalls in Tunis and Algiers, which is not in itself exceptional, but in Tripoli February 5, 1956, together with those of 1913 and 1915 it was one of the only three snowfalls recorded in the whole century. While in Central Europe recorded temperatures were under -15° C (5° F) with low peaks of -30 to 40° C (-22° to -40° F) in east Europe and Scandinavia, on the morning of 12 February 1956 the city of Lisbon awoke under the snow, the last snowfall recorded in the Portuguese capital to date. Even in the spring of 1956 lows were recorded during April, May and June across Europe.

Winter 1956 in Italy

In Italy the crisis began on February 1, 1956; on February 2, the Po Valley was below a -15°C isotherm at 850 hPa, and snow storms were all over the North. Rome experienced a snowfall that became historic.
On February 4, snow was falling over most of Italy, and new ice-cold currents hit the Adriatic region reaching a peak on Feb. 7, when a powerful cold core struck the southern regions.

On 8 February, a new low pressure between Corsica and Tuscany again caused heavy snowfalls in Rome and throughout central and southern Italy, with blizzards and freezing temperatures, frost and snow. In those days it snowed even on the Sicilian coast. In Palermo, the minimum temperature went down to 0° C (32° F) and the city was blanketed over and again by several centimeters of snow, which also fell on the southern coasts of Sicily and the island of Lampedusa.

On 13 February new ice-cold currents came from the Rhone valley, resulting in rigid temperatures that struck the north of Italy and led to new snowfalls especially on the Marche, Umbria and Tuscany, moving the day after southward, while the regions of the north and centre were enveloped by frost. In the next days frost and snow continued, with new snowfall from February 18 until February 20 on the whole north and centre, and even in Rome.

Winter 1956 in Abruzzo

Bibliography sources: Il grande freddo del 1956 by Marco Rossi in the Meteogiornale, and Nevicata del 1956, L'Aquila e dintorni nell'inverno più memorabile del secolo scorso, published by One group.

December 1955 was very mild and rainy, it had not even snowed at considerable heights on the surrounding mountains. An anticyclone brought good weather and warm temperatures throughout the Italian peninsula, with little rain accompanied by sirocco winds.

In mid-January it was still warm, there were still insects flying and the snow was only on the highest peaks of the Gran Sasso. After January 25 the sky was still clear but the temperature dropped lower and lower each day. On 31 January, in the early afternoon it started to snow on the mountains, then at lower altitudes, and after half an hour there were already nearly 15 cm (6 inches) of snow in L'Aquila. The Russian-Siberian anticyclone brought strong winds and cold to Italy, creating a depression that from 1 February brought large snowfalls over the Mediterranean area.

Soon the situation became dramatic in Abruzzo. Gales of unprecedented violence racked the region from the Adriatic coast to the inland areas. The inhabitants of many villages as Campotosto, Pietracamela, Castel del Monte, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Roccaraso, Rivisondoli, Pescocostanzo, Roccacaramanico, Ovindoli, Pescasseroli were isolated, with such high snow that it was impossible to even open the entrance doors of the houses. In those days at the Albergo Campo Imperatore the temperature fell to -20°C (-4° F). The situation was critical in the hinterland of Vasto, with many isolated places, including Castiglione Messer Marino, Schiavi d'Abruzzo, Montazzoli, but also places at lower altitudes such as San Buono and Fresagrandinara.

On February 5th the cold flow reached Africa, creating snow storms in some semi-desert areas in Algeria. In those times there was no television in the houses, at most there was one at the village bar: TV news broadcast images of snow falling on the desert with runaway camels ... they had never seen snow.

For three days the storm continued to flog relentlessly throughout Abruzzo, now the snow exceeded three meters (almost 10 ft) nearly everywhere over 1000 meters (3280 ft) above sea level. In Pescara the snow was 40 cm high (1 foot 4 inches). The sky started to clear now and then, but with temperatures even below of -20 to -25° C (=-4 to -13°F), utterly unbelievable for the Mediterranean area. In the Fucino plateau temperature dropped to was reached at -32° C (-25.6°F); elsewhere, in northeastern Italy -45° C (-49° F) was recorded on Monte Rosa, and -57° C (-70.6° F) on the Spanish Pyrenees.

In Abruzzo, on the road pass of Forca Caruso at 1107mt (3631 ft), south-east of the massif Sirente, many trucks were blocked, unable to go towards Marsica. As soon as the weather showed a slight improvement, rescuers helped them to go on; just in time, since a new Arctic storm was coming and the pass was later closed. In that year many lakes froze, such as Campotosto, Barrea and Scanno. The city of Chieti was under a meter of snow (over 3 ft).

On February 10, new, heavy snowfalls hit Abruzzo and Molise, creating a situation of almost total paralysis. An American snow plow was able to reach Capracotta, which had been isolated for several days, coming from Castel del Giudice: along that road snow was over 4 meters (13 ft). But the situation was becoming more dramatic. In the following two nights new, abundant snowfalls blocked almost everything, everywhere. With great difficult rescuers were able to reach the village of Castelvecchio Calvisio, at 1071 meters (3513 ft) above sea level, on the southern side of the Gran Sasso, to bring food to the inhabitants; near Villetta Barrea the road, already closed for the huge amount of snow, was also hit by a large avalanche.

The situation became critical for medicines, which were lacking now almost everywhere. Roofs began to collapse under the weight in L'Aquila, Avezzano and smaller centers in the mountains. Farm animals were blocked in their stables without forage. Province and state roads between L'Aquila and Sulmona were all closed. During the brief sunny spells snowplow vehicles tried to clean the roads to Pratola Peligna, Popoli, Bussi, Capestrano and Navelli. Ofena, nicknamed the "Oven of Abruzzi", was buried under about 2 mt (almost 7 feet) of snow. On the Navelli plateau a furious wind had created snow drifts 3 mt (10 ft) high and over. Expert cross-country skiers from Moena, province of Trento, also came to the rescue, commanded by Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, the two mountaineer who had been the first to reach K2 in 1954.

Around the middle of February, the weather became still worse on the Mediterranean and Italy, with currents from the north-east at 850 hPa, accompanied by Rhone currents from the north-west at 500 hPa, and there was no hope for the Italian peninsula. By now in many mountain towns of Abruzzo, as well as in alleys of the historical centre of L'Aquila, people moved only through tunnels excavated into huge snow heaps. With the new snowstorms many places became unreachable: Ovindoli, Campo di Giove, Campotosto, Castel del Monte, Pizzoferrato, Gamberale. Civitaluparella at 903 meters (2962 ft) a.s.l. was isolated for over ten days, partly because of a large avalanche in the vicinity. At Pescina, just over 700 meters (2296 ft) of altitude, in some spots the snow had reached 7 mt (23 ft), halting for a long time the Avezzano-Sulmona railroad, and 150 people, blocked inside the 776 direct train, had to accept the hospitality of the Pescinesi. The Fucino basin and Avezzano were accessible only from the Valle Roveto, l'Aquila only from the Navelli Plateau by road, but not always.

Meanwhile, the avalanche danger increase. Rocca Pia, at 1184 meters (3884 ft) above sea level, was also hit, fortunately without consequences; from Anversa degli Abruzzi to Scanno as many as 64 avalanches were recorded, which created snow walls over 8 meters high (26 ft). A large avalanche came down along the road between Tagliacozzo and Capistrello.

At last, air flows from south and south-west began to drive the cold away, but warm air, being lighter than the existing cold, slided over it giving rise to more snowfalls everywhere. Towards the end of the month of February the warm south wind unleashed a new threat, connected to the too fast melting of large quantities of snow. The temperature was warmer until March 10, when I get a new cold core came from Russia.

On Sunday, 11 March 1956, the Roma - Lazio soccer match, scheduled at the Olympic Stadium, had to be postponed because of snow. In Abruzzo snowflakes started to fall, big as handkerchiefs (the "sparrozzi") and it snowed throughout the afternoon, in L'Aquila fresh snow reached 60 cm (2 ft) - the event is still remembered by elderly people as "ju nevone" - an event that had not occurred since the winter of 1929. Again the region's main roads, as the SS5 Tiburtina Valeria, were closed due to deep snow and avalanches. The villages of the Monti della Laga in the province of Teramo had been completely isolated for about a month. The snow also fell along the coast, with 40 cm (3ft 4 inches) in Pescara. At Capracotta in Molise the snow had reached 5 mt (16 ft). Over half of Abruzzo towns and villages were isolated again, and temperatures were at a minimum.

At last, after March 20th fine weather returned, with the anticyclone embracing much of the Mediterranean, and temperatures became warmer. The snow was melting, swelling rivers and streams and causing avalanches in the mountains. In some alleys of L'Aquila there were still small snow heaps well into the month of June.

A contemporary's memories

A brother of mine was born on 16 March of that year. My father was a young technician of the phone company at that time - but we had no phone in the small, 2-roomed house along upper Via Fontesecco in L'Aquila. In the 1960's the whole little quarter was demolished to build a huge bridge connecting the main hill of L'Aquila to a newer area. My mother's was 9-months pregnant and went into labour. The midwife - almost all women gave birth at home in those times - was living in Via Verdi, about 700 mt (2296 ft) away. My father took hours to open a small path amid the high snow to go and fetch the lady. Whenever in the years afterwards we were worried about some big snowfall, our parents used to say: "if you had seen the 1956 snowfall..."!

Pescara, snow on the beach, February 2012

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