The Greatest Weather Prediction of All Time

Or Was It Just a Stroke of Luck?

By T. R. LeMaire
October 22, 2019
Waves Crashing
JNE Photos/Getty Images

Forecasting genius or just good luck? Read on for the tale of an eerily accurate prediction from back in the day.

In December 1868, Lieutenant S. M. Saxby of the British Navy notified the London press that our world would be visited by a gale of frightful violence and unprecedented tides in the following year. Saxby named the day, October 5, and the hour, 7:00 A.M.

Saxby based his prediction not on the simple instruments of the day but on astronomy. He observed that a lunar coincidence would place the Moon directly over Earth’s equator on that date. With Moon and Sun exerting their maximum pull at the same time, he reasoned, unusually high tides would result—“and nothing more threatening, I say, can occur without a miracle.”

Saxby’s conclusions were refined by Frederick Allison of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who pinpointed the storm’s landfall. Allison hardly endeared himself to the neighbors by announcing Halifax harbor as the target. 

As October 5 neared, Halifax citizens acted in very human ways. Many laughed at the “luny” notion of forecasting a hurricane 11 months in advance. Some saw doomsday a-coming and prayed for deliverance. Others began boarding up windows. 

Unbeknownst to all, a tropical storm was prowling up the Atlantic toward Nova Scotia, right on schedule. A beast of the sea, it swished its tail at Nantucket Sound, but that island’s newspaper later reported for October 4, 1869, “No material damage.” Boston had a “short squall” at about 3:30 that afternoon, but at sea, ships were being shattered.

The Saxby-Allison forecast had named Halifax as the target, with a 7:00 A.M. landfall. The prediction was amazingly close: within about 100 miles and 12 hours. The gale struck the preceding night. Instead of plunging along the easterly shore of Nova Scotia, it attacked the west. Up the Bay of Fundy it roared, blasting the shores of Maine and New Brunswick—a full-blown hurricane.

On the day following the storm, a traveler covering the 30 rural miles between Eastport and Calais, Maine, counted 90 houses either blown apart or severely damaged. A crewless vessel was blown across Passamaquoddy Bay and up the St. Croix River, a distance of 30 miles. 

However, the Saxby Gale was unique not for wind but for water. The rain, the tides, and the floods in most areas were without equal. Although the eye of the hurricane had remained at sea, the mid-Atlantic and New England states drowned. Rain gauges overflowed. At Goffstown, New Hampshire, nearly 4-½ inches cascaded down on the town in only 2 hours. At Canton, Connecticut, an observer would not submit his rain report because he “measured 12.35 inches but did not think it could possibly have been so much.” It was!

An enormous wall of water surged along the Fundy coast. Fundy tides, of course, are famous, reaching heights of 45 and even 50 feet. During the Saxby Gale, the tide left its mark on Parrsboro buildings near the head of the bay—at 57-½ feet!

The amazingly accurate forecast has been called many things: a miracle of meteorology, one of the best near-misses in the history of prediction, a stroke of luck. Guesswork, however, appears to be ruled out by the laws of probability. What are the odds of anyone back in those days blindly picking a spot on the map where a hurricane will strike—and being accurate within 100 miles?

It was and is one for the record books.

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