What El Nino Means for the Atlantic Hurricane Season

Evolution of the present El Niño pattern. This chart shows changes in Pacific Ocean temperature anomalies over the past year, with longitude along the x axis and time on the y axis.  Source: NOAA

Evolution of the present El Niño pattern. This chart shows changes in Pacific Ocean temperature anomalies over the past year, with longitude along the x axis and time on the y axis.
Source: NOAA

Well, after months of indecision, El Niño has finally decided to establish itself. Simply put, El Niño is when the waters of the Pacific Ocean become abnormally warm. This has far-reaching effects on tropical and even global climate. The primary effect of El Niño is drastically increased rainfall across the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the southern United States. We’ve already seen this with the devastating floods in Texas and Oklahoma. By contrast, in the Western Pacific, rainfall is drastically reduced, often leading to drought and wildfires in Australia.

So, what does this mean for the hurricane season? Well, during El Niño years, the spike in ocean temperatures typically increases tropical cyclone activity in the Eastern Pacific. Outflow, the stream of high-level clouds and winds, from these storms combined with enhanced westerly flow aloft into the Atlantic Ocean, typically leads to unusually high wind shear, or change in wind speed and direction with height, across the Atlantic Basin during the heart of hurricane season. High wind shear is a death sentence for a tropical cyclone. It tears them apart from the top down. This is why El Niño years typically see much fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic. A major El Niño event in the early 1980’s effectively knocked out two Atlantic hurricane seasons. There were just ten storms in 1982 and ’83 combined, with a record low four in 1983.

However, El Niño isn’t a guarantee that we’ll get off scott free. One of the four storms in 1983 was Hurricane Alicia, which caused major destruction in the Galveston area of Texas, killing 21 people and causing $2.6 billion in damage ($6.2 billion in 2015). In 1992, just seven storms formed the entire season following a strong El Niño the previous winter. However, one of those storms just so happened to be Hurricane Andrew, which was the most destructive hurricane in US history at the time, causing damage conservatively estimated at $26.5 billion ($44 billion in 2015). Some estimates run as high as $34 billion ($57 billion in 2015). Up to 62 people died.

Hurricane Betsy, in an eerie foreshadowing of Katrina, left large portions of New Orleans underwater. Betsy struck near the peak of a strong El Niño, with +1.7 deg C ocean temperature anomalies present in the Pacific.  Source: University of Texas

Hurricane Betsy, in an eerie foreshadowing of Katrina, left large portions of New Orleans underwater. Betsy struck near the peak of a strong El Niño, with +1.7 deg C ocean temperature anomalies present in the Pacific.
Source: University of Texas

El Niño statistically reduces the number of storms in the Atlantic, but how much does it really reduce the risk of a destructive hurricane? The fact is Mother Nature doesn’t follow a rule book. Since 1950, ten Atlantic hurricanes have killed at least 60 people during El Niño conditions. Nine caused over $1 billion in damage, a number that grows to eleven when inflation is taken into account. Audrey devastated southwestern Louisiana during the El Niño of 1957. Flora caused catastrophic floods in Haiti and Cuba that killed over 7,000 people in October, 1963 during a moderate El Niño event, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in Atlantic history. Betsy became the first hurricane to cause over $1 billion in damage during the heart of a strong El Niño event in 1965 that resulted in just a six-storm season. Camille occurred during a weak El Niño and Agnes, which caused devastating floods across the eastern United States that killed 129 people and was the costliest hurricane in history at the time ($3 billion, $17 billion today), occurred during an even stronger El Niño. Gordon killed 1,100 people in Haiti during the El Niño of 1994.

Damage in Haiti from Hurricane Flora.  Flora was the worst hurricane in Haiti's history and the sixth deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. It occurred during a moderate El Niño with a +1.2 Pacific Ocean temperature anomaly.  Source: HistoryMiami

Damage in Haiti from Hurricane Flora. Flora was the worst hurricane in Haiti’s history and the sixth deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. It occurred with a +1.2 Pacific Ocean temperature anomaly.
Source: HistoryMiami

Most surprisingly, however, all of the incredible devastation of the 2004 season occurred under weak El Niño conditions that peaked at 0.8 deg C of Pacific warming during the August-September-October time frame. This may explain why the 2004 season became remarkably quiet after mid-September. However, that still didn’t stop Jeanne from plowing into Florida as a major hurricane on September 26. It’s also worth noting that Hurricane Sandy occurred during a brief spike in Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures (a +0.6 anomaly) that, while not officially classified as an El Niño, was within El Niño parameters for approximately 3-4 months from August into November. The most common examples of major storms in inactive years that I mentioned earlier, Alicia and Andrew, in fact occurred on the backside of weakening El Niños. When Alicia formed, conditions were in fact transitioning to La Niña. All of the others I just mentioned happened with at least 0.5 deg C of Pacific warming, the official boundary of El Niño. Betsy occurred with an astonishing +1.7 deg C warm anomaly present in the Pacific. That year’s El Niño reached peak intensity just a couple of months later.

Looking at the statistics, there have been a total of 45 billion-dollar hurricanes in recorded history. Nine of them, 20% of the total, occurred during El Niño (+0.5 deg C or greater). Nineteen happened during neutral conditions (+0.4 to -0.4 deg C), and 17 were during La Nina (-0.5 deg C or lower). Of the 35 storms that have killed at least 100 people since 1950, 28.6% of them (10 in total) happened during El Niño. Nine storms have caused at least $1 billion in damage and/or 100 deaths in the United States during El Niño (Audrey, 1957; Betsy, 1965; Camille, 1969; Agnes, 1972; Bob, 1991; Charley, 2004; Frances, 2004; Ivan, 2004; Jeanne, 2004) out of 33 total events (28%, expanding the data set to storms with 50+ deaths for the purpose of the chart above adds only two storms…Carol and Hazel of 1954…but reduces the El Niño percentage down to 26%). That means over a quarter of major destructive tropical events happened when conditions were climatologically unfavorable for tropical cyclone development.

Since 1950, there have been 409 hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean. 33 of them ultimately produced major destructive events in the United States (50+ fatalities and/or $1 billion in damage), or approximately 8%. Eleven of those events occurred under La Niña conditions (2.7%), while nine occurred under El Niño conditions (2.2%). So, based on the past 64 years, El Niño’s presence has reduced the chances of a devastating tropical event by a whopping 0.5% over the dreaded La Niña. Yee ha!

All this highlights the danger of writing off an El Niño year. The tropics, like nature in general, are fickle. You simply cannot expect any particular hurricane season to simply pass quietly into the night. It only takes one.

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Dixie Alley

Climatological tornado alleys across the United States. Research has identified at least four significant hot zones of tornado activity.  Source: University of Akron

Climatological tornado alleys across the United States. Research has identified at least four significant zones of tornado activity. This is probably a more precise depiction of where these active regions really are.
Source: University of Akron

The vast expanse of the southern Great Plains from central Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska have become synonymous with tornadoes. The legend of “Tornado Alley” has become ingrained in the American consciousness. This association has been fed by popular culture, with Hollywood movies from the Wizard of Oz to Twister. It’s not without merit either; this region sees more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world, statistically. However, in reality, there isn’t just one “Tornado Alley.” In fact, the two largest and most significant tornado outbreaks in recorded history happened not in the Great Plains, but in the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys. In the south, there is an intense tornado hot zone that runs from northeastern Louisiana through central and northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, and northwestern Georgia (and sometimes portions of Tennessee are also included). This region doesn’t get any Hollywood movies made about it, but throughout history it has been ravaged by tornadoes.

Devastation in Albertville, Alabama after an F4 tornado struck the town during the Dixie outbreak of April 24, 1908. This tornado killed 35 people and 324 died during the outbreak, which took place almost entirely within Dixie Alley. An outbreak on the Plains the previous day produced an F5 in Nebraska.  Source: NOAA

Devastation in Albertville, Alabama after an F4 tornado struck the town during the Dixie outbreak of April 24, 1908. This tornado killed 35 people and 324 died during the outbreak, which took place almost entirely within Dixie Alley. An outbreak on the Plains the previous day produced an F5 in Nebraska.
Source: NOAA

Plains Alley, the traditional “Tornado Alley,” is nearly twice as large as Dixie Alley, but between 1950 and 2003, Dixie Alley had over a hundred more strong tornadoes (EF3 or greater) than its more well-known counterpart, or roughly 25% more, and 43% of the total tornadoes between the two regions. Since that time, 26 violent tornadoes (EF4 or greater) have struck Plains Alley. Dixie Alley has had 31. The state of Texas has not had an F5/EF5 tornado since 1997. Since that time, Alabama has had at least three (granted, Oklahoma has had at least four…Oklahoma has been the dominant hot spot west of the Mississippi over the past 12 years). However, in the Great Plains, the activity is more widely spread. In Dixie, the intensity is relatively focused on a small area. According to a study by Mississippi State University, south-central Mississippi has the highest likelihood of a tornado hitting within 25 miles of any given point than anywhere else in the country.

Total destruction in the Stacy Hollow neighborhood near McDonald Chapel after the April 15, 1956 tornado.  Source: NOAA

Total destruction in the Stacy Hollow neighborhood near McDonald Chapel after the April 15, 1956 tornado.
Source: NOAA

However, the most dramatic difference between Dixie Alley and Plains Alley is the devastation. Dixie Alley is half the size of Plains Alley but is home to seven million more people. Four of the top ten deadliest tornado outbreaks took place almost entirely in Dixie Alley. Three others had at least two strong tornadoes kill at least 20 people in Dixie Alley. Between 1950 and 2013, 716 people died in tornadoes in the state of Alabama, far and away the highest toll of any state. There is a particularly severe section that includes central and northern Mississippi and Alabama, and extreme south-central Tennessee. This region has been ravaged by an astonishing 13 F5/EF5 tornadoes (not counting Tuscaloosa) all time and 50 F4/EF4s since 1950 alone, with major outbreaks also occurring in 1908, 1920, and 1932. This compares favorably to a similar section from central Oklahoma north into central Kansas (along the I-35/135 corridor I like to call “F5 Alley”). Also, interestingly, seven of the top 11 longest-lived tornadoes ever reliably documented occurred in Dixie Alley.

Homes in the Smithfield neighborhood on the north side of Birmingham vanished during the 1977 F5 tornado.  Source: NOAA

Homes in the Smithfield neighborhood on the north side of Birmingham vanished during the 1977 F5 tornado.
Source: NOAA

The cities of Birmingham, Alabama and Moore, Oklahoma are the only cities to have been struck by an F5 tornado twice. The community of Tanner, Alabama, has been impacted by as many as three (including two in the span of 45 minutes during the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974…the monstrous Hackleburg tornado of the April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak caused high-end EF4 damage just SE of Tanner, however the rating of the second 1974 tornado is controversial). Jefferson County, Alabama has been struck by five violent tornadoes since 1950, tied with Cleveland County, Oklahoma for the most of any county in the country. Oklahoma City is synonymous with powerful tornadoes. The principle metro area of OKC has been hit by five violent tornadoes in recorded history (1912, 1930, 1942, 1945, 1999), and only one since 1950. Birmingham (which, for the record, is four times smaller than OKC) has also been hit by five violent tornadoes, all of them since 1950 (1956, 1963, 1977, 1998, 2011). Moore, which has been hit by two F5/EF5s and and F4 in the past 16 years, only had one significant event prior to 1999 (1893). Yet Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas are the areas iconically associated with tornadoes, not Alabama.

Aerial view of the devastation in Phil Campbell after the April 27 tornado.  Credit: HBTV

Aerial view of the devastation in Phil Campbell after the April 27 tornado.
Credit: HBTV

The point of all this is that it’s a fallacy to select any single area as THE tornado alley. The truth is, there are several “tornado alleys” and there’s limited statistical discontinuities between them. A region encompassing most of Indiana, central and northern Kentucky, western Ohio, and southern Michigan is sometimes referred to as “Hoosier Alley”. The upper Midwest of Iowa, southern and central Minnesota, most of Wisconsin, and northern Illinois is a particularly active area. Portions of it are sometimes incorporated into Plains Alley or Hoosier Alley. Pretty much anywhere between the Rockies and the Appalachians has a statistically significant risk of tornadoes. It’s important to bring awareness to all of these areas, not just the one’s we see in movies. It’s worth pointing out that only half of the ten deadliest tornadoes in recorded American history (plus ties) occurred in either Plains Alley or Dixie Alley. The big ones don’t just happen on the Plains, they can happen almost anywhere, so it’s important to know the risks no matter where you live.

Today marks four years since the April 27, 2011 outbreak and we should never forget that it could happen again, but for our awareness, preparedness, and vigilance.

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The Year Summer Never Came

Tambora today.  Source: Smithsonian Institution

Satellite image of the volcano as it is today.
Source: Smithsonian Institution

200 years (and 17 days) ago, the Earth was visited by a terrifying slice of prehistoric oblivion. Mount Tambora sits on Sumbawa Island, a member of the Sunda Islands in Indonesia. Indonesia is a string of volcanic islands that lie along the southwestern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is home to 141 volcanoes, including the legendary Krakatau (better known as Krakatoa), and the supervolcano Toba that reportedly nearly drove humanity to extinction 74,000 years ago. Tambora made Mt. St. Helens look like a mouse fart. St. Helens spat out roughly 0.3 cubic miles of ash. Tambora released 38 cubic miles of ash. That’s enough to bury the entire state of New York, all 54,555 square miles of it, in 3.7 feet of ash. Its initial explosion was like an 800 megaton nuclear bomb. That’s 61,500 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Think about that for a second. The Hiroshima bomb made a major city disappear, seared people’s shadows into concrete and fused clothes to people’s skin. The Tambora eruption was 61,500 times more powerful than that.

A contemporary etching of the eruption.

A contemporary etching of the eruption.

Before 1815, Tambora hadn’t erupted in a thousand years. Many scientists believed it was extinct. Volcanism in Indonesia in general had been remarkably quiet for over a century. The country hadn’t had a major eruption since a relatively modest VEI 4 eruption (on a 0-8 scale, St. Helens was a 5, Tambora a 7) reportedly killed 3,000 people on the island of Halmahera and nearby islands in 1760. No eruption more powerful than that had happened there since the 1600’s. People simply stopped thinking about it. Beginning in 1812, however, things began to change. Residents heard rumbling coming from the mountain and periodic earthquakes occurred. Occasionally, a dark cloud wafted up from the mountain’s summit. For a while, nothing happened, but as the months passed, the earthquakes grew more frequent. Then, three years after the volcano awakened from its slumber, the unthinkable happened.

On April 5, 1815, Tambora exploded. Massive booms reverberated for hundreds of miles. People on Sumatra, 1600 miles away, heard what sounded like gunshots. British troops on nearby Java, which had been temporarily seized by the British to prevent it from falling to Napoleon after Indonesia’s colonizers, the Dutch, lost their homeland to the French, were mobilized because it was initially thought they were being attacked by naval cannon. Five days later, on the evening of April 10, the eruption intensified. Witnesses reported seeing three columns of ash and flame swell and merge together, towering high into the sky. Lava began to pour down the mountainside toward the villages below. Ash and pumice rained down and began to bury the landscape. Thick clouds of ash covered the sky as far away as Jakarta, nearly 800 miles away. People in Jakarta (then called Batavia) reported smelling a “nitrous” odor as a dark, ash-filled rain began to fall.

The pyroclastic flow from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991. The Tambora eruption was 14.5 times more powerful.  Source: PBS

The pyroclastic flow from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991. The Tambora eruption was 14.5 times more powerful.
Source: PBS

Back on Sumbawa the situation was dire. Huge clouds of intensely hot rock, ash, and gas called pyroclastic flows surged down the mountain at very high speed, annihilating everything in their path, spreading out up to 12 miles from the summit. Pyroclastic flows are one of the volcano’s greatest killers. Much like a nuclear blast, exceptionally few of those caught in one live to tell about it. It was the pyroclastic flow that wiped out the people of Pompeii, many of them killed where they stood, frozen in horrifying repose before being entombed in ash for 1800 years before being excavated. Roughly 10,000 people met the same fate on Sumbawa. 38,000 more starved as all the island’s crops were wiped out. The entire island was stripped of vegetation. Everywhere within up to 370 miles of the summit was plunged into pitch darkness for up to two days.

A British military officer sent to the island by the Lieutenant-Governor of Java reported that bodies were strewn neglected by the sides of the roads. Virtually every survivor had been left homeless and they scrounged desperately for food. Water sources were contaminated by toxic ash and diarrhea was rampant, drastically increasing the death rate. It wasn’t much better on neighboring islands, as ashfall wiped out crops and created widespread famine. In those days, information traveled slowly, and with all the world’s major powers just coming out of major warfare, few resources were available to provide relief. On Sumbawa and surrounding islands, at least 71,000 people are believed to have died, making it the deadliest volcanic eruption in recorded history.

Temperature anomalies for the summer of 1816 in Europe.   Source: NOAA

Temperature anomalies for the summer of 1816 in Europe.
Source: NOAA

The volcano’s effects were felt worldwide. The dust and ash from Tambora soared high into the atmosphere and was carried around the world by the jetstream, plunging the planet into a volcanic winter. Skies over England filled with dust and spectacular sunsets were reported across Europe and North America. Portions of central Europe experienced brown and red snow, tinged by the ash high in the atmosphere. August frosts were reported. Switzerland was particularly hard hit. Over the succeeding two years, the country’s average mortality rate doubled. It was so cold that an ice dam formed at the edge of Gietro Glacier, which then catastrophically collapsed in 1818, killing 44 people. Unusually heavy rains caused floods on Europe’s major rivers.

The eerie color of the sunset in this painting of the Chichester Canal in England by J.M.W Turner is believed to have been inspired by the atmospheric phenomena occurring across Europe and North America during the summer of 1816.

The eerie color of the sunset in this painting of the Chichester Canal in England by J.M.W Turner is believed to have been inspired by the atmospheric phenomena occurring across Europe and North America during the summer of 1816.

A persistent fog or mist shut out the sun across the United States and Canada. In 1816, throughout much of the northern hemisphere, summer never came. Portions of upstate New York reported sub-freezing temperatures throughout May. It snowed as far south as Pennsylvania in early June. Quebec City, Canada and the higher elevations of Vermont and New Hampshire received a foot of snow between June 6 and June 8. Lake and river ice was reported as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania throughout the summer. Frosts were reported as far south as Virginia on August 20/21. The Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut reported frost on August 23. Some areas recorded major frosts every month of the year. All of that from something that happened on the other side of the world. However, normal or even above normal summertime temperatures were reported at times, with the cold extremes happening at the end of wild temperature swings. Curiously, the Atlantic hurricane seasons of 1815 and 1816 appear to have been quite active, despite the record-cold summers (indeed, a hurricane struck the Florida Keys in early June, 1816 as snow was falling in New England). The 1817 season was much less active but it’s not clear if the aftereffects of the eruption had anything to do with that.

Sunset in Hong Kong nine months after the Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, giving us a glimpse at how the skies over Europe and North America may have looked after the Tambora eruption. Source: Wikipedia

Sunset in Hong Kong nine months after the Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, giving us a glimpse at how the skies over Europe and North America may have looked after the Tambora eruption. Note the low, dense veil of dust hanging over the water like smog.
Source: Wikipedia

Outside the Western Hemisphere, snow also fell on tropical Taiwan. Wintry precipitation was also reported in eastern China at latitudes comparable with the southeastern United States…in summer! Crops across China were wiped out. A severe monsoon season led to widespread devastating floods in China and India. Even when the winter finally abated, the weather remained miserable. Much of the northern hemisphere was mired by chilly weather and persistent rain and cloudiness.

The weather inspired a group of young authors and friends, Mary Godwin, John William Polidori, and Lord Byron, to challenge each other to see who could write the scariest story. Godwin, together with her future husband Percy Shelley, wrote Frankenstein, and Byron wrote a piece called A Fragment. Byron’s work inspired Polidori to write The Vampyre a few years later, which in turn inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula as well as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Crito and is considered one of the founding works of the vampire genre and a hallmark of Gothic literature. Byron also wrote the poem Darkness about the persistent gloom. Oats to feed horses were so scarce that a German inventor, Karl Drais, came up with human-powered wheeled machines that were the precursors to the modern bicycle so that people could get around without horses.

Another Pinatubo sunset, this one was taken in Hawaii in the summer of 1991. Long after the sun had gone, the sky turned an intense red that lingered long after the usual twilight. This exact same phenomena was reported in Europe and the US after Tambora.  Source: Richard Fleet

Another Pinatubo sunset, this one was taken in Hawaii in the summer of 1991. Long after the sun had gone, the sky turned an intense red that lingered long after the usual twilight. This exact same phenomena was reported in Europe and the US after Tambora.
Source: Richard Fleet

Widespread crop failures brought on by the bitter cold of 1816 and 1817 had devastating effects on Europe and North America. Europe saw its worst famine of the 19th Century. Riots and looting were common as food prices soared. In the US, the famine was exacerbated by poor transportation networks (the Transcontinental Railroad was still nearly 40 years away), making it hard to import food. A typhus outbreak ravaged Ireland, killing 100,000 people. At least another 100,000 are believed to have died in Europe from the extreme conditions. In China, thousands starved. The exact death toll will likely never be known. Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s book Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World paints a very dramatic picture of the dire conditions in some parts of China. “Famished corpses lay unmourned on the roads; mothers sold their children or killed them out of mercy; and human skeletons wandered the fields, feeding on white clay.” Local poets spoke of barren fields; never-ending rains; and desperate, starving people.

Modern researchers have questioned whether Tambora was the sole culprit of the upheavals of 1816 and 1817. Four VEI 4 eruptions had happened worldwide in the preceding three years and the Tambora eruption occurred during a period of low sunspot activity called the Dalton Minimum. All of these probably contributed to the severity of the climate impacts caused by the Tambora eruption.

Today, Tambora is quiet. The volcano hasn’t had an explosive eruption since 1880 but remains active. The area’s population has dramatically increased, and Tambora’s terrifying history earns it considerable attention from scientists. In recent years, periodic seismic activity around the mountain has been reported, just more reminders of the threat the volcano still poses.

The Tambora caldera as it looks today. The caldera was formed by the massive 1815 eruption.

The Tambora caldera as it looks today. The caldera was formed by the massive 1815 eruption.

Volcanic cataclysm of this magnitude is typically only found in ancient rocks and sediments of long-quiet craters, evidence of a hostile Earth whose ravages were wrought long before humans ever walked upon it. Today, we fear more the havoc we might wreak upon the Earth than the havoc it might wreak upon us. The pursuit of softer footprints and more conscientious stewardship is a noble one, but we should never forget how powerful this great planet is. It can uproot our peaceful existence and throw our society into turmoil at a moment’s notice. Events like Tambora, if nothing else, should remind us to appreciate today, because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

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Six Weeks of Chaos

We have reached the end (or so many of us hope) of another crazy winter. Many records were set, particularly in Boston. In a six week period from late January through the first week of March, the northeast and parts of the mid-South were pummeled by storm after storm after storm. After a crazy November, December and the first part of January were relatively quiet. That all changed in the final week of January.

Buried cars in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood after the late January blizzard.  Source: Chicago Sun-Times

Buried cars in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood after the late January blizzard.
Source: Chicago Sun-Times

Beginning January 23, a powerful winter storm swept across the Great Plains into the northeast, bringing high winds and exceptionally heavy snow, producing whiteout conditions along the densely populated areas of the I-95 corridor. Many roads, including a 300-mile stretch of I-95, were shut down at the height of the storm. The northeast was brought to a standstill. Some areas of Massachusetts got 36″ of snow. Worcester got 34.5″, its most ever for one storm. Boston got nearly 25″ and most areas of eastern Long Island and New England got at least two feet.

New York City, however, despite dire forecasts, escaped with just 10″, leading to criticism of forecasters and government officials after Governor Cuomo ordered the New York subway system shut down, the first time that had ever been done for snow. Meanwhile, huge waves were pounding the New England shoreline. Some areas of coastal Massachusetts saw major flooding. Numerous water rescues took place in Scituate, with some people having to be airlifted to safety. An eighty foot section of seawall at Marshfield was washed away. Thousands of people were without power for days, including the entire island of Nantucket. And that was just the beginning.

The February 1 storm buried Chicago in over a foot and a half of snow.

The February 1 storm buried Chicago in over a foot and a half of snow.

As soon as the January storm ended, another one followed. This one first hammered Chicago with almost 20″ of snow with howling winds that brought even the famously snow-hardy city to a halt. Detroit saw its heaviest snowfall in 40 years, with almost 17″. Then the storm headed into the northeast, bringing yet more heavy snow. Boston got another 18″, delaying the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl parade and forcing schools to close yet again. Less than a week later, beleaguered Boston was hit yet again by another major snowstorm, it’s third in as many weeks. 22 more inches fell and Boston recorded a snow depth of 37 inches, the most snow the city has ever had on the ground at any one time. Over the preceding month, the city had received 72″ of snow, most of that over the previous three weeks. This included an astonishing 40″ over a seven day period in early February. That’s just seven fewer than Boston’s average annual total.

Round four came over Valentine’s Day weekend as another large winter storm hammered a large portion of the Eastern US. The upper Midwest saw another round of heavy snow and another foot fell on Boston, with up to 22″ falling in some parts of Massachusetts. Roof collapses began to be reported due to the weight of the incredible accumulations on rooftops. This time, however, winter also plunged into the south. Nashville and surrounding areas of central Tennessee received significant icing while Kentucky, as well as portions of northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, were pounded by heavy snow. Lexington got 9″ and some parts of Kentucky got over a foot. Lower amounts fell in the mid-Atlantic states, with DC picking up about 4″.

The February 25 snowstorm produced near-whiteout conditions and heavy snow accumulations across northern Alabama, north-central Mississippi, and northern Georgia.  Source: al.com

The February 25 snowstorm produced near-whiteout conditions and heavy snow accumulations across northern Alabama, north-central Mississippi, and northern Georgia.
Source: al.com

After that three-week onslaught, the northeast got a break as Mother Nature turned its attention to the south. A week after the Valentine’s weekend event, another major winter storm struck the south. This one brought heavy snow from southern Arkansas through portions of the Carolinas from February 24-26, with widespread totals of 4-8″. Northern Alabama in particular was clobbered with up to a foot of snow in some areas between Birmingham and Huntsville. Huntsville got 8″. Parts of north Georgia got as much as 10″ with widespread areas of 5-7″. Areas of North Carolina got up to 8″.

The historic March snowstorm buried Kentucky freeways and stranded hundreds of motorists for hours.  Source: WBKR

The historic March snowstorm buried Kentucky freeways and stranded hundreds of motorists for hours.
Source: WBKR

The very next week, yet another winter storm blitzed the mid-South. It began in Texas on March 4, dropping over 3″ on the Dallas Metroplex. Surging northeast, the storm brought moderate snow mixed with some sleet and freezing rain to much of Arkansas. 4-6″ fell across much of Arkansas and western Tennessee. Then the storm moved into Kentucky, where it absolutely exploded. An axis of high wind shear developed, generating strong convection within the snow bands and intensifying the snowfall dramatically. Sections of central Kentucky were hammered with accumulations well into the teens. Elizabethtown was buried by an astonishing two feet of snow. Roof collapses were reported. Lexington smashed its single-storm total snowfall record with 17″. The intensity of this convection was not well anticipated, with initial forecasts projecting a foot of snow at most even at event onset.

The storm continued eastward, bringing more heavy snow to West Virginia and moderate snow to Virginia and DC. About 9″ fell at Dulles Airport and 4-6″ fell in the District proper. The snow reached as far north as New York, where 4-6″ fell. Boston escaped significant snowfall. However, a brief snow event on March 15 pushed Boston’s season total to 108.6″, toppling the previous record set in 1996 (107.6″).

Winter appears to have finally released the country from its icy grip and spring is on the horizon, but this winter, particularly the astonishing six weeks between January 26 and March 6, will live long in the memory of many, particularly Bostonians. As much of the country thaws out and melting gets into full swing, one can only wonder what severe weather season has in store for us.

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2014 – The Year in Weather

Every year brings new fascinating and wild weather events. 2014 was no different. As the year comes to a close, it’s worth looking back on all that happened.

January

January was marked by frigid temperatures east of the Rockies. The Northeast and Great Lakes were hammered by snow. Seven inches fell on Boston on January 3 and the temperature dipped to 2F, with a wind chill of -20F. Portions of Massachusetts got nearly two feet of snow. Nearly a foot of snow fell on Detroit as temperatures fell to near 0F. On January 7th, New York City dropped to 4F, breaking a record that had stood for 116 years. That same day, Chicago dipped to -12F, part of four straight days of sub-zero temperatures that included -16F on January 6. Both readings were daily records. Philadelphia also dropped to 4F on January 7th, breaking a 26 year old record. The Schuylkill River, while not frozen over, was thick with ice. Lighter snow fell in central Tennessee as temperatures dipped to 9F on January 6 and 2F the following night. Midtown Atlanta dropped to 5F on January 7.

An upper air chart showing what ended up being the dominant pattern of the winter of 2013-2014, with a high pressure over the Rockies and an Arctic low over the Great Lakes, plunging the jetstream deep into the eastern US.

An upper air chart showing what ended up being the dominant pattern of the winter of 2013-2014, with a high pressure over the Rockies and an Arctic low over the Great Lakes, plunging the jetstream deep into the eastern US. Source: University of Wisconsin – Madison

Beginning January 28, a major winter storm struck the southeast. Heavy sleet and ice accumulations occurred in Louisiana, central and southern Alabama, and central Georgia. Bridges across the Gulf Coast region were closed due to icing and sleet accumulations were observed all the way to the shoreline. Ice accumulations were as high as 0.5 inches in those regions. Overshadowing the ice event to the south, however, was the significant snow event that struck north-central Alabama and Georgia, including the metro areas of Atlanta and Birmingham. Initially, the storm was expected to remain to the south of those cities, with only light accumulations expected. As such, resources were shifted to the south as regions that were expected to be the hardest hit had very little snow and ice removal equipment. However, the storm made a late shift to the north. During the overnight hours on January 27-28, predictions went from around one inch to around three inches and winter storm warnings were expanded to include the entire Atlanta metro area at 3:38 am. Warnings were not issued in Birmingham until almost the start of morning rush hour.

Icy roads in metro Atlanta brought traffic to a standstill.

Icy roads in metro Atlanta brought traffic to a standstill. Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution

However, despite the dramatic change in the forecast, Atlanta area public school systems did not close and Government offices opened as scheduled. In the end, roads were never properly treated and as the snow began to fall at around 10am, tens of thousands of people poured out onto them all at once trying to get home. This created epic gridlock that trapped people in traffic for hours. Thousands had to spend the night in their cars. Others abandoned their cars and tried to walk home or sought shelter in nearby buildings. Children slept in buses or at schools. Good Samaritans took stranded motorists into their homes and local businesses generously offered shelter. A Chick-fil-A restaurant took free hot meals out to the adjacent interstate and offered it to those stranded. The traffic didn’t clear up until after sunrise the following morning. The exact same scenario played out in Birmingham as thousands were stranded on gridlocked, icy interstates. The crisis led to widespread criticism of leadership in both cities, who were caught completely unprepared by the relatively sudden change in the forecast, as well as NWS forecasters, and led to calls for sweeping changes in emergency response plans with respect to winter weather.

Accumulating snow was seen as far south as Monterrey, Mexico. Chicago saw its third snowiest January on record, with 33.7” and Mauna Kea, Hawaii saw a record snow event in late January with 12”. While the east remained bitterly cold, the west saw above-average warmth as persistent ridging remained in place. This ridging is what caused the steady stream of arctic air into the eastern US.

February

The cold temperatures continued into February. Numerous cities had their coldest February in decades, particularly in the upper Midwest. As the month began, 75% of the Great Lakes were frozen over, the lakes’ most substantial ice coverage at that point in the season in 18 years.

Famous Magnolia Lane at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia covered in snow, sleet, and ice. The club lost numerous trees, including the famous Eisenhower Tree.  Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Famous Magnolia Lane at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia covered in snow, sleet, and ice. The club lost numerous trees, including the famous Eisenhower Tree.
Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Another major snow and ice event struck the south in the middle part of the month. Up to a foot of snow fell in parts of the Smokey Mountains and 8” fell in the Chattanooga area, while up to 5” fell in north Georgia. Meanwhile, a major ice storm struck a huge swath of central Georgia and South Carolina. 1.34 inches of ice accumulated at Warrenton, Georgia and neighboring sections of South Carolina saw nearly 1.5 inches of ice. This caused widespread power outages and scattered property damage from falling tree limbs. The famous Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, was irreparably damaged and had to be cut down. Fortunately, however, the appalling gridlock of the January event just a couple weeks earlier was not repeated.

A surreal scene on an interstate near Raleigh as traffic ground to a halt and people abandoned their cars, one of which caught fire.

A surreal scene on an interstate near Raleigh as traffic ground to a halt and people abandoned their cars, one of which caught fire. Source: CNN

That same storm brought a major snowstorm to portions of North Carolina. Raleigh saw the same crippling gridlock that Atlanta and Birmingham saw in January. Roughly six inches of snow fell with near-whiteout conditions at times. Eight inches fell at Winston-Salem. The storm continued northward, dropping 15” on Baltimore and parts of DC (with areas of nearby Maryland reporting over 20”). Thirteen inches fell on New York City and 9” fell in Philadelphia, marking the Philadelphia area’s fourth 6”+ snowstorm of the winter, a new record.
Just a few days later, however, a moderate tornado outbreak struck portions of the Midwest and South. Particularly notable tornadoes struck near Fort Payne, Alabama and the north side of Dublin, Georgia. In all, the two day outbreak produced 46 tornadoes in 14 states.

Bitter cold again struck late in the month and continued into the first week of March. Flint, Grand Rapids, and Gaylord, Michigan; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Toledo, Ohio all set daily record lows on February 28. Newberry, Michigan fell to a bonechilling -41F.

March

Relief from the cold was slow to come in March as temperatures remained below average for much of the lower 48. DC, and many areas of the northeast, including the entire state of Vermont, saw their coldest March on record. Flint, Michigan (-16F) and Rockford, Illinois (-11F) set monthly record lows on March 3.

Observed temperature anomalies during the the Oct 2013-Mar 2014 period versus climate means, showing the bitter cold that gripped much of the lower 48.

Observed temperature anomalies during the the Oct 2013-Mar 2014 period versus climate means, showing the bitter cold that gripped much of the lower 48. Credit: NOAA

The winter of 2013-2014 was historic in many ways. Chicago saw its coldest calendar winter on record. Between December 1 and March 31, the average temperature in the city was 22F, 10 degrees below average. Numerous other locations had among their top five coldest winters. Two thirds of the Great Lakes remained frozen over through the first week of April, a very rare occurrence, significantly impacting maritime commerce. By April 10, the high pressure ridge that had been parked over the Rockies finally shifted east, and the eastern two thirds of the lower 48 at last began to thaw.

While everybody east of the Rockies were shivering and buried under snow and ice, the west saw unusually warm and dry conditions. California had its warmest and third driest winter on record, and temperatures in Alaska were well above average. The warm, dry conditions adversely affected many western ski resorts. The Pacific Northwest, however, received significant snowfall courtesy of the numerous storms that poured in over the persistent ridge.

April

Tornado season got a late start courtesy of the bitterly cold winter. Just 27 tornadoes formed prior to April 25 outside of the February 20 outbreak, most of them weak. When an EF3 struck rural areas near Washington, North Carolina on April 25, it marked the latest first formation of an EF3 or greater tornado on record.

Devastating damage to the Parkwood Meadows subdivision in Vilonia.  Source: NOAA

Devastating damage to the Parkwood Meadows subdivision in Vilonia.
Source: NOAA

Two days later, the first significant outbreak of the season occurred. A powerful EF4 tornado devastated the town of Vilonia, Arkansas. It touched down six miles east of Paron and moved north-northeast, first causing major damage to subdivisions just south of Mayflower before ripping through Vilonia. The Parkwood Meadows subdivision was particularly hard hit, with nine poorly anchored homes completely wiped out. Numerous large commercial buildings were leveled. A 15-ton fertilizer tank was carried three quarters of a mile and one properly anchored home was completely swept away. These extreme shows of force are indicative of a tornado very near EF5 intensity, which this tornado likely flirted with and may have briefly reached. Sixteen people died. It was the state’s deadliest tornado since the Jonesboro F4 of May 15, 1968.

An obliterated home in Louisville.  Source: NOAA

An obliterated home in Louisville.
Source: NOAA

Another EF4 struck Louisville, Mississippi. It formed in rural Leake County and moved northeast, passing northwest of Noxapater before curving more to the north-northeast, striking the southeast side of Louisville, causing devastating damage. Three large factories were destroyed and adjacent neighborhoods were ripped apart. Numerous homes were destroyed and a few were swept away. A door from Louisville was carried some thirty miles and dropped on the campus of Mississippi State University. Ten people were killed.
The storm also brought historic flooding along the central Gulf Coast. Some areas received as much as 26 inches of rainfall. Pensacola, Florida got 22” in just a single 24 hour period, including an astonishing 5.68” in an hour at one point. Widespread flash flooding occurred, including in the cities of Pensacola, Mobile, and Gulf Shores. $100 million in damage occurred in Pensacola alone.

Flooding also occurred in the mid-Atlantic states as up to 7.57” of rain fell. The entire Delaware River watershed saw flooding to some extent. In some areas, it was the worst flooding event since Hurricane Irene.

May-June

May was largely quiet. The San Diego area was hit by numerous wildfires, some of which were man-made. One person was killed. June saw the return of severe weather. On June 16, a major outbreak struck the northern Great Plains and the upper Midwest. A single supercell produced an astonishing four EF4 tornadoes. The first formed southwest of Stanton and moved north-northeast, passing west of that town as an EF3. The tornado intensified as it crossed US-275 just west of Oak Street, wiping out two farmhouses and throwing two vehicles over a quarter of a mile.

Incredible shot of the Pilger twin tornadoes taken by a storm chaser.

Incredible shot of the Pilger twin tornadoes taken by a storm chaser.

Shortly after that tornado lifted, another formed over rural areas east of Stanton and moved northeast. As it intensified, a third tornado formed alongside it about two miles to the east. The second tornado ripped through the town of Pilger as an EF4, causing widespread major damage, as its twin tore through neighboring farmland. Many homes and businesses in Pilger were destroyed, including some brick buildings, and some were swept away. After the second tornado passed Pilger, the two began to converge, eventually crossing paths as the third tornado also reached EF4 strength and turned to the north. The third tornado wiped out a farmhouse before lifting. As it weakened, yet another tornado formed. This one moved just east of due north and caused major damage to farms south and east of Wakefield. Several farmhouses were wiped out in the vicinity of 854th Road just east of Nebraska 16. Fortunately, just two people were killed by the four tornadoes combined.

Two days later, another EF4 struck rural areas of eastern South Dakota, wiping out a farm south of Alpena and throwing heavy machinery great distances. A corn field was stripped to bare soil.

July

The 2014 hurricane season was fairly quiet. However it had a somewhat exhilarating beginning. Hurricane Arthur developed from a non-tropical low on July 1 off the east coast of Florida and moved northward and then northeastward toward the coast of the Carolinas. By July 3, it was a Category 2 hurricane bearing down on the Outer Banks. With the Fourth of July weekend approaching, thousands of tourists had flooded local beaches. With Arthur bearing down, many of them fled and local holiday celebrations were cancelled or postponed all along the East Coast. More isolated barrier islands were ordered evacuated as ferry service would be cut off.

Coastal flooding in Rodanthe, North Carolina on Hatteras Island, one of the communities hardest hit by Arthur.  Source: United States Coast Guard

Coastal flooding in Rodanthe, North Carolina on Hatteras Island, one of the communities hardest hit by Arthur.
Source: United States Coast Guard

Arthur made landfall at Cape Lookout with 100 mph sustained winds, the worst of which remained offshore. A 77 mph sustained wind and a 101 mph gust was recorded near the point of landfall. Widespread flooding struck the North Carolina coast up to six feet deep in places, flooding some homes and businesses. Severe impacts, however, were avoided and no homes were declared a total loss. Roughly 44,000 customers lost power, which remained out in some areas for days. Portions of coastal New England were also affected as Arthur passed just offshore. Nantucket was hit with tropical storm force winds and some minor coastal flooding. Widespread power outages were reported in Maine, with only scattered outages in Massachusetts.
Arthur became extratropical shortly before striking Nova Scotia. Hurricane-force winds caused widespread major damage to power grids and utilities, with over 290,000 left in the dark. Damage came to a relatively minor $52.5 million and just one person was killed.

August

Several motorists were stranded by major flooding in the Detroit area. Portions of I-75 were shut down due to floodwaters up to five feet deep.  Source: Detroit News

Several motorists were stranded by major flooding in the Detroit area. Portions of I-75 were shut down due to floodwaters up to five feet deep.
Source: Detroit News

While the Atlantic hurricane season was quiet, the Eastern Pacific was very active. During the first week of August, Hurricane Iselle, once a Category 4, took aim at the Hawaiian Islands. Fortunately, Iselle weakened to a 60 mph tropical storm before striking the Big Island on August 7. Gusts as high as 96 mph were reported at higher elevations. The storm brought torrential rains of up to 12 inches in some areas, causing widespread flooding that killed a hiker. Strong winds tore the roofs off of homes left nearly 22,000 people without power. 60% of Hawaii’s papaya crop was destroyed. Damage came to $66 million, making it the third costliest tropical cyclone in state history.

As people in Hawaii were cleaning up after Iselle, Michigan was getting hammered by torrential rains. Widespread flooding struck the Detroit area, leaving motorists stranded and roadways impassible. Portions of Interstate 75 were shut down due to floodwaters and numerous homes received at least some flooding.

September

In early September, Hurricane Norbert combined with the remnants of Tropical Storm Dolly in the Atlantic to create a major flood event in the desert Southwest. Norbert passed offshore of Baja California as a Category 3 and Dolly struck the Tampico area. The outflow of Norbert combined with Dolly’s remnants to spread torrential rain northward into the United States. Arizona was the hardest hit. Up to six inches fell in less than a day in areas that are normally exceptionally dry. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport got 3.3” in just seven hours. The Phoenix area was inundated, with floodwaters as deep as 15 feet. Phoenix recorded a two hundred year flood event and some suburban areas recorded a thousand year flood event. It was the worst flooding in the state since 1970.

Historic flooding shut down interstates and flooded homes in the Phoenix area. Source: social media

Historic flooding shut down interstates and flooded homes in the Phoenix area.
Source: social media

In southern Nevada, parts of Interstate 15 had to be shut down due to flooding and some cars were swept away. Two hundred children were trapped in an elementary school by floodwaters 12 feet deep. Road flooding also struck portions of New Mexico and California.

A week later, Hurricane Odile caused widespread major damage in the Baja California of Mexico. Its remnants caused scattered minor flooding in Texas and some minor coastal flooding in San Diego County, California due to wave action.

On September 10, a winter storm struck Montana and adjacent states, setting records for earliest snowfall in many spots.

October

Snow in Lexington, South Carolina on November 1. This was a continuation of the southern snow event that began on Halloween night.  Source: social media

Snow in Lexington, South Carolina on November 1. This was a continuation of the southern snow event that began on Halloween night.
Source: social media

On October 17, Hurricane Gonzalo struck Bermuda as a major hurricane, causing major damage. Minor effects were felt in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as the hurricane brushed the Leeward Islands on October 13. At around the same time, another hurricane was threatening the Hawaiian Islands. Hurricane Ana passed just south of the islands on October 17 and 18 as a Category 1, bringing torrential rain to the islands of up to 11.67”. A water treatment plant on Sand Island on Oahu overflowed, sending 5,000 gallons of partially-treated wastewater into Pearl Harbor.

Late in the month, an early blast of winter struck portions of the southern Appalachians as a massive trough plunged southward. Snow fell in the Smokies and the north Georgia mountains on Halloween night, setting several earliest snowfall and daily/monthly snowfall records. This proved to be just a prelude of events to come.

November

The month of November was highlighted by a series of record-setting cold waves. The first struck early in the month and was a continuation of the Halloween event as unseasonably cold temperatures occurred across portions of the eastern US for the first week of November.

This was followed by a historic cold wave just a week later. It was spurred by the extratropical remnant of Typhoon Nuri, which evolved into a powerful non-tropical storm system that caused the jetstream to crash deep into the lower 48, bringing bitterly cold arctic air southward. Record lows were smashed across large swaths of North America. See my previous blog post for more in depth coverage of this event.

Incredible photo of a neighborhood in western New York buried by feet of lake effect snow.  Source: social media

Incredible photo of a neighborhood in western New York buried by feet of lake effect snow.
Source: social media

During the latter part of the cold wave, a historic lake-effect snow event slammed the eastern Great Lakes region. Intense, convective snow bands struck regions around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as a powerful storm system moved through the region. The Buffalo metro area was buried under as much as 65” of snow (5.4 feet). Nearby Bennington, New York recorded an astounding 88” (7.3 feet!), with larger drifts. Some homes were buried up to the eaves. Many were trapped in their homes and had to literally dig their way out. The Buffalo Bills and other sports teams were forced to postpone games due to the storm and the Bills ended up having to play their next home game against the New York Jets in Detroit. Some players had to be dug out of their homes and retrieved by snowmobile.

Later in November, yet another cold snap hit the northern Great Plains. The temperature in parts of Montana fell an astonishing 70F in a single 24 hour period.
Eighteen states had one of their ten coldest Novembers on record and the lower 48 saw its greatest November snow coverage on record, with over 50% of the country blanketed.

December

Widespread flooding in California was brought on by the Pacific “Pineapple Express” in December.
Source: AP

December saw the return of more mild temperatures for much of the US, a welcome relief after a bitterly cold and snowy November. However, on December 10, a major storm system struck the West Coast, bringing heavy snow and blizzard conditions to the western mountain regions and flooding rains to the lower elevations. Portions of California had their heaviest rainfall in years, with up to eight inches reported in a 24 hour period. This storm system fueled the steady pipeline of moisture known as the Pineapple Express as a high pressure parked itself over the Aleutians. This kind of blocking pattern causes a dip and elongation of the jetstream as persistent low pressure systems develop on the backside of the high pressure and funnel a steady stream of moisture from the warmer waters southeast of Hawaii northward into California. This rainfall helped break a substantial drought that had mired portions of the western US, particularly California, for most of the year. The event finally subsided by December 21. Another smaller and shorter event struck over the Christmas holiday.
All was quiet as the year came to a close, but what an eventful year it was. It’ll be interesting to see what 2015 has in store.

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Brrr!

It’s cold out there! Really cold. Yesterday morning was the coldest November morning in the lower 48 in 38 years. This marks the third major cold outbreak of the season thus far. The first occurred on Halloween. Chicago received it’s earliest snowfall since 1993 and parts of the Great Lakes region failed to get out of the 30’s. Meanwhile, an unprecedented snowfall struck the southern Appalachians. Asheville, North Carolina received five inches of snow on Halloween night. Asheville had never had any more than flurries on that date. Other areas of the Great Smoky Mountains received up to 22 inches. Parts of north Georgia received their earliest snowfall on record. Temperatures across the eastern half of the US were, on average, 10-15 degrees below normal.

A map of near-surface temperatures at 8 am Eastern Time Tuesday morning.  Source: WeatherBell

A map of near-surface temperatures at 8 am Eastern Time Tuesday morning.
Source: WeatherBell

The second major cold snap began ten days later. The temperature in Omaha dropped 41 degrees in less than 24 hours, from 60F at 11:40 am on November 10 to 19F at 7:05 am on November 11. The high in Denver on November 12 was just 6F, the city’s coldest high for so early in the season. Only three other November days on record were colder in Denver. Amarillo, Lubbock, and Childress, Texas along with Goodland, Kansas all had record cold high temperatures that day. Casper, Wyoming plunged to -27F just before midnight and stayed there into the following morning. The city’s previous November record low was -21. Parts of the northern Great Plains barely reached 20 degrees and freezing temperatures reached as far south as the central Gulf Coast region. Some Minnesota ski resorts were able to open early thanks to the early season snowfall and persistent cold temperatures.

Just a few days later, another blast of cold air surged into the lower 48. On Monday, the temperature in Kansas City failed to get above 23F, a new record; and Joplin, Missouri dipped to 6F the following morning, a record low for the month of November. Dallas saw highs of 45F or lower for five consecutive days, between November 12 and 17, for the first time ever. Yesterday morning, it reached -12F in Valentine, Nebraska; and 10F in Paducah, Kentucky…both records. 85% of the lower 48, encompassing roughly 226 million people, experienced freezing or sub-freezing temperatures yesterday. Portions of all 50 states reached or fell below the freezing mark. Temperatures east of the Rockies were as much as 40F below normal. Last night, temperatures dipped into the single digits in parts of the northern Great Lakes and fell into the twenties all the way to the northern Gulf Coast. Charlotte, North Carolina bottomed out at 14F, a record for so early in the season. Portions of central Alabama saw lows in the teens, setting new records.

Meanwhile, a massive lake effect snow event slammed the eastern Great Lakes, particularly western New York. Buffalo was buried under an astonishing five plus feet of snow, trapping people in their homes and bringing a city accustomed to heavy snow to a screeching halt.

While relief is now on the horizon and a warm up is expected by the end of the week, the way the season has gone so far does make you wonder how long it will last…and what January will look like.

Here’s a great article from WeatherBell about this incredible cold snap with beautiful, illustrative maps: http://models.weatherbell.com/record.php

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1989 Huntsville Tornado – 25 Years Ago Today

Huntsville, Alabama – November 15, 1989

Huntsville, Alabama lies in the heart of “Dixie Alley,” a climatological tornado hotspot stretching from northern Louisiana to northwest Georgia. It is particularly profound between Monroe County, Mississippi and Huntsville’s Madison County, Alabama. Despite this, the city had largely escaped the appalling devastation that had been wrought on areas to the west and south, including the city of Birmingham, throughout the 20th Century.

Aerial view of the damage.  Source: NWS Huntsville

Aerial view of the damage.
Source: NWS Huntsville

The week before Christmas in 1967, an F2 struck just east of downtown, causing extensive damage and killing two. On November 27, 1973, an F3 caused major damage to the airport, where the National Weather Service office lost its roof, and a nearby trailer park. On April 1, 1974, two days before the Super Outbreak, an F3 hit just west of downtown and wrecked several homes. Late during the Super Outbreak itself, another F3 hit the Redstone Arsenal and neighborhoods south of downtown. Just three people were killed in those four tornadoes combined.

The lone exception was way back in 1920, when an F4 devastated the town of Lily Flagg, seven miles SE of the city, now part of Huntsville’s southern suburbs, during the disastrous outbreak of April 20. Twenty-seven people were killed. Sixty-nine years later, another devastating F4 struck just two miles to the north.

It was a mild but humid fall day in northern Alabama. Headlines rang of the sweeping tide of freedom in Europe. The Berlin Wall had fallen just six days earlier and the Cold War’s thaw had shifted to a full melt. A strong cold front was digging into the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys and strong southerly winds were bringing in warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. This abundant moisture combined with strong wind shear aloft resulted in very favorable conditions for severe weather.

A view of the rain-wrapped tornado as it crossed Airport Road. Source:  Huntsville Rewound

A view of the rain-wrapped tornado as it crossed Airport Road.
Source: Huntsville Rewound

As the afternoon progressed, the sky grew increasingly ominous and dark clouds began to gather. At around 2pm, a squall line began to develop over northeastern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Ahead of it, a handful of discrete cells began gathering strength. One of them was steaming straight for Huntsville. As it passed over the Redstone Arsenal at around 4:25pm, NASA meteorologists saw a low-hanging wall cloud within the thunderstorm and it had begun to rotate. The tornado touched down just a few minutes later and moved NE toward the southern suburbs of Huntsville, intensifying quickly.

Meanwhile, the work day was coming to an end and people began spilling out onto the roads to head for home. Most of them had no idea that a massive tornado was just minutes away from them. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning approximately five minutes after touchdown and media outlets quickly picked up the warnings, but for many it was too late. Even if they managed to hear the warnings over the radio, those in cars were stuck in rush hour traffic with nowhere to go.

Flattened apartments at the Waterford Square complex.

Flattened apartments at the Waterford Square complex. Source: NWS Huntsville

The storm roared across US-231 and into a densely populated business section as an F4 half a mile wide. Cars were thrown from the road as the tornado leveled several small retail complexes and the nearby Waterford Square apartments. Motorists trapped in rush hour traffic on Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive could only watch in horror as the tornado bore down on them, hurling more cars through the air, and smashing businesses and churches. Nineteen people died in just the one mile stretch between US-231 and Whitesburg along and south of Airport. Twelve of them were in cars, four at Waterford Square, and two in nearby businesses.

From there, the tornado moved through a wooded section before striking Jones Valley Elementary School on Garth Road, where 37 children were attending after school daycare. The entire second floor where the children had been moments before was wrecked as they and five teachers huddled in a stairwell. No one at the school was seriously hurt, however a woman driving to the school along Garth Road was killed. Numerous well-built suburban homes in the adjacent Jones Valley subdivision were destroyed and many more were severely damaged.

Some homes were nearly swept away.
Source: “Miller’s Mail” personal blog

The tornado continued northeast into more rural areas, destroying what little it encountered. It crossed US-431 near Dug Hill and US-72 southeast of Brownsboro as a somewhat weaker tornado (though it grew to nearly a mile wide near US-72), before finally lifting back into the clouds near the south shore of Smith Lake. It had travelled 18.5 miles. In all, 259 homes, 80 businesses, three churches, and two schools were destroyed. Nearly 300 other buildings were damaged, many of them severely. Twenty-one people died and 463 were injured. Property damage came to over $100 million. It was the worst tornado to strike the state of Alabama in the 1980’s.

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