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Spearfish's World Record Temperature Change - 1943

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There's an old saying in these parts. "If you don't like the weather in South Dakota, just wait around a few minutes and it will change".

That saying was certainly correct in the Northern Black Hills during the winter of 1943 when a warm chinook wind brought the temperature in Spearfish from minus 4 degrees to plus 45 degrees Fahrenheit in just two minutes, a world record for fastest temperature change. The record still stands.

The morning of January 22, 1943 dawned cold in the towns of Spearfish, Lead, and Rapid City. The day began with a sunrise temperature of minus 4 degrees. Then, at about 7:30 AM, shortly after dawn, a freakish chinook wind began blowing. Two minutes later, the thermometer stood at 45 degrees above zero Fahrenheit, a change of 49 degrees! In the next few moments, car windows and windows on houses began to fog up. Several cracked in the drastic temperature shift.

The big warm-up hit Rapid City next. The temperature reading in the Canyon Lake neighborhood was near zero when the phenomenon arrived in the city, and within two minutes, residents were basking in 55 degrees. Motorists in the Canyon Lake neighborhood had to stop their cars to scrape off a thick coating of frost generated by the chinook.

Rapid City Journal, Jan. 22, 1943. (

Newspaper accounts of the phenomenon revealed that this wasn't the first time such an unusual event weather had hit the South Dakota territory. The area’s Native Americans already had words to describe the sudden change in weather. Their description of the weather contrast phenomenon was called "the snow eater" wind.

The Rapid City experience lasted more than a half hour with temperatures rising to 60 degrees before returning to the winter temperatures around the zero mark. The temperature Spearfish also dropped quickly. By 9:30 AM, the wind had stopped blowing and the temperature was once again -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Guinness Book of World Records entered the event as the fastest temperature change ever recorded anywhere in the world. The Guinness Book of Records does not take its history responsibility lightly and continues to list this remarkable event in the Black Hills of South Dakota as an all-time record.

Listen to an "In The Moment" radio interview with Gary Enright, Director, 1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer.

SDPB's "In The Moment"

Spearfish's World Record Temperature Change


Interview Transcript

Lori Walsh: Nice to hear your voice. Happy New Year.

Gary Enright: Thank you. You too.

Lori Walsh: Here we are in 2021.

Gary Enright: I hope everything went well?

Lori Walsh: Here we are in 2021, still standing, and challenges and excitement ahead.

Gary Enright: That's right. There you go. Well, one thing, like you said at the beginning, one thing you can count on is the weather in South Dakota. That's the topic today, when we talk a little bit about some of those things that happened back in the past and haven't been repeated.

Lori Walsh: Right. So before we talk about exactly why this happens, let's talk about what exactly happened on that day in 1943, in January in Spearfish.

Gary Enright: Sure.

Lori Walsh: What were people experiencing?

Gary Enright: It started out in Spearfish on a very cool January 22nd day in 1943, as you indicated earlier. Everybody was standing around in the morning, wondering what's going to happen with the day. And it was two degrees below zero in the local thermometers, in Spearfish. And all of a sudden, two minutes later, it was 49 degrees. And it wasn't -49, it was 49 on the plus side. And nobody could figure it out. Everybody was sort of standing around looking at each other. And finally, they started talking about an old Indian saying about burning out the snow with what we now call a... I'm losing my thought here. Oh yes, well, Guinness Book of World Records named us to be one of the, probably a rare opportunity, that ever happened. As we look what happened in Spearfish, everybody was standing around sort of looking around, and all of a sudden, the temperature was back down to near 20, or near the zero.

Lori Walsh: Below? Yeah.

Gary Enright: Yeah, it went back to where it was, 2 degrees. But it was 49 degrees above zero in Spearfish when the super thaw we liked to call it here, it took place. And then, as the morning progressed, Lead started back under the minus, below the temperature, and the Western part of Rapid City, actually had the weather of somewhere around 5 degrees. And all of a sudden it was 55 degrees. And this was the Canyon Lake Park area. And the neighborhood had not had that kind of temperature from the summer of that same year in 1943. So it was weird.

Lori Walsh: It was just weird.

Gary Enright: And as I said, the Native Americans, back in the day, called this occurrence, which we now recognize as a very rare change in the temperature, and that happened about, I supposed to happen three times to the Native Americans, but they had lived to it before. And so they called it The Snow Eater. And that was the wind that they called The Snow Eater.

Lori Walsh: Yeah. Huh. All right, so all this happens meteorology because of the mountains and the chinook winds. This is all about wind. But it's still pretty drastic because this record still stands all these later, here in 2021.

Gary Enright: Oh yes it does.

Lori Walsh: It has not happened again to that extreme. Tell us a little bit about that.

Gary Enright: The Guinness Book of World Records does not take its history responsibility lightly. They make a note of these kinds of things and they keep it up to see if it's ever going to be broke. And it hasn't been broken, not in the Black Hills of South Dakota, that we know of. And that doesn't happen very often either. But that is one of the things that the Guinness Book still maintains, it's the warmest and the quickest change that had ever happened in the days of keeping records.

And that is one of the things we looked up, and found out that the Guinness Book of World Records actually comes back when you type it into the computer. And it says 1943, the Black Hills of South Dakota. And that's where they-

Lori Walsh: Because this all happens within two minutes. You're taking your jacket off. And then two minutes later you're scraping your windows?

Gary Enright: That's about right, yeah.

Lori Walsh: Literally. Yeah.

Gary Enright: Literally, yeah.

Lori Walsh: So this makes the newspaper, everybody's got to talk about. We can get a lot of conversation about the weather in South Dakota. We're good at it. So did you find evidence of that, of how people thought about this at the time, and told the story?

Gary Enright: Well, the only thing we found the records of was the fact that there were some telephone calls made between the towns. And that's one of the things that we do know happened, when it happened to be that the people in Spearfish who saw this happen first, actually picked up the telephone and called some of the neighboring towns and see if that was happening there.

Now they didn't have a lot of time, because at 49 degrees, about 50 degrees of temperature change, the situation was that two or three minutes after the chinook wind came, it was all over. And so there was nothing to do but stand around and talk about it.

Lori Walsh: Was that, I would imagine, if you went inside to make the phone call, you missed your warm window there.

Gary Enright: Missed the summertime. That's right. There you go.

Lori Walsh: A lesson for life, just be in the moment and just enjoy what's happening before you...

Gary Enright: And be ready.

Lori Walsh: Well today, Gary Enright, people are reporting feeling an earthquake near Tyndall. But that's all over social media. So now we can maybe share those unusual stories a little bit faster with one another.

Gary Enright: I didn't know that.

Lori Walsh: It's all the buzz today. I love this newspaper headline. You can go on our website and look for the images of the past post on this, by the way, and the headline from the Rapid City Journal on January 22nd, 1943. The article starts, here's the lead, "Spring, like a playful lover, repeatedly kissed the cheeks of winter here today to break a week long cold wave that kept Rapid City in a grip of far below zero temperature." So the journalists of the time had a little fun...

Gary Enright: Oh good. I'm glad they did.

Lori Walsh: ... with their analogies that day.

Gary Enright: Oh, that's funny.

Lori Walsh: They got a little saucy, I think, when they wrote the story.

Gary Enright: Yes, I guess. Was nice and kind of a surprise.

Lori Walsh: So what is the weather today where you're at? Are we seeing anything strange out your way? I've got a sunny skies here.

Gary Enright: No, there is a sun today. Yes. And it's kind of nice. And if you're standing in the right place, it's probably 28 or 30 degrees. It may get better during the afternoon, but I don't trust them.

Lori Walsh: Yeah.

Gary Enright: There's one group of people, in broadcasting that I don't trust, and that's the weatherman.

Lori Walsh: So this is, I think a lot of people East River who might be listening now, also get confused about the weather in the Hills, in the Northern Hills and the Southern Hills. It's not unusual for people from the Black Hills to come to this part of the state where I'm sitting and be a little disappointed at how cold it is and how there's nothing to stop that wind from biting through layers of clothing a little bit, is there?

Gary Enright: That's true. That's true. Absolutely.

Lori Walsh: Gary Enright is Director of the 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer. And you can find this story and much more on our website, where you can find all the information about this record setting day in the Black Hills of 1943, Spearfish, South Dakota. And it's a record that still stands. Gary Enright, thank you so much for being here with us. We appreciate your time.

Gary Enright: Thank you so much. And I'll see you in a month.